Sustainable development in global context

 M. Ali. Akbar Haider


The world’s population has more than doubled compared to what it was around 1950. Predictions indicate that the world’s population is now residing largely in urban areas. By 2050, urban dwellers may account for 60 per cent of the world total. It is apprehended that the rural population will in large portion be unattended by engineering services. 

Resources including water and commodities are not well distributed or utilised. Some social analysts predict that the future World War may be over water resources. 

Bangladesh has an agrarian economy. Agriculture accounts for nearly 46 per cent of the GDP. Jute and rice are the main cash crops. Other crops include tea, sugarcane, oilseeds, fruits vegetables, species, wheat, potatoes, tobacco and cotton. The major industry in Bangladesh is jute processing followed by cotton spinning, steel rolling, garments and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Almost all are water dependent. Bangladesh is crisscrossed by more than 200 rivers, which are the lifeblood of this fertile delta. Water brings invaluable benefits for agriculture, fishing and navigation, but sometimes it brings havoc. 

The standard of living for rural people depend on agricultural commodities, but agriculture receives a low profile due to the low prices of agricultural products. Again it is to be mentioned that the devaluation of the local currency against the US dollar every year reduces the purchasing capacity of the people. Statistics show that the prices of agricultural goods including rice and pulses are showing a downward trend in 1999. The price of rice declined by 7.57 per cent due to bumper production in that year but the cost of living rose by 6.42 per cent and the price of others commodities rose by 2.13 in 1999. In 2000, it became 6.38 per cent and 1.98 per cent respectively. It is obvious that sustainable water related agricultural development will help to curb such trends. 

Hindukush Himalyan cachements are the vital source from which of almost all the major rivers of Bangladesh. The natural topographical condition makes Bangladesh a river basin which drains more than 90 per cent of the country’s waters. In Bangladesh the unreliability of the climate, floods and droughts have always been part of our existence. We have become more prone to disaster and the extent of the disaster is increased from time to time. No doubt, good water management offers hope for the future of Bangladesh. But there are problems. Floods from the north and cyclones from south wreak havoc. Moreover, erosion is another natural catastrophe for which a substantial number of people are forced off their lands and out of their homes. 

The scarcity of water is a problem in the dry season due to water diversion by the upland riparian. Salt water in the coastal areas affects irrigation and causes damaging salinisation. The ground water in deep aquifers contain non-renewable water and is beyond use; blue water is being treated for consumptive and non-consumptive use. Green water in the unsaturated soil is being used for productive purposes. Though water is abundant in Bangladesh, water is relatively expensive substance to transport and store in regard to its value and it is a finite and vulnerable resource. 

So, in Bangladesh the context we have as regards water is that it is too little yet too much. And to ensure the availability of water in Bangladesh, including rainwater, surface water and ground water, in usable forms, there is a need for sustainable development. 

The role and responsibility of engineers should be not be limited to finding the optimal investment and cost return ratio in the development process. Saving of resources such as time, man, money and material and the adoption of appropriate technology will ensure the sustainability of almost all development projects with expected growth. The challenge for the engineer of Bangladesh is to satisfy the essential needs of human life in Bangladesh. 

Development is meant to promote the quality of human life and the following criteria are needed for consideration for sustainability of water-based development: 

To do the engineering for sustainable development, measures have to be taken to protect and conserve the resources, including water commodities, and to empower women. Working towards poverty alleviation is a must. Private investment needs to be actively promoted in the water sector. 

Experiences show that the weaknesses in institutions and the insufficiencies of other commodities, the unmanaged distribution of resources and its uses, illiteracy and poverty, are all major causes of ineffective development. Improper and unsustainable planning are also causes for ill return from a project. 

For sustainable development in Bangladesh, there is a need for a change of engineering ethics: need-based development of the community for the people instead of complex technology-based development. We must avoid hard engineering approaches. Side by side, appropriate technology and an indigenous development culture may contribute sustainability to a project. 

A bottom-up or real participatory planning approach and people based technology can help sustainable development, though the way is long. Here are some points to be mindful of: 

a) Hardware strategy: including institutional, social, environmental concerns and the use of appropriate technology and indigenous technology. There must be a political will to improve appropriate bottom-up water management and to build partnership initiatives and capacity building. 

b) Software strategy: including people planning, participatory planning development sharing and recognising the collective and individual burden of responsibility to society.

c) Regional strategy: including interregional co-operation, region specific planning, political transparency and enacting a legal framework for regional water use.

With regard to the water related sector, and its partner, co-partner activities such as IDA/WB financed development and food aid projects, the importance of careful planning and a clear political will for achieving higher standards of life for the worst off cannot be overlooked. Bangladesh is in the process of developing its water sector in order to improve the livelihood of the people. Sustainability depends on the improved operation and maintenance of current and completed projects. It requires the adoption of people participation at all levels of the development effort and renovations of selected completed development activities to reduce adversities.

The environment, technical, social, economic and institutional concerns; and equity, poverty alleviation, security, health and increased employment facilities are necessary factors for sustainability. Development only for the people and by the people of the society, will ensure sustainability and depends on community or stakeholder participation.

Source: The Independent, 9 February 2001