Bangladesh's GDP growth over the last decade has coincided with investment in several large-scale infrastructural development projects, covering road communication and energy sectors.
Since 2009, the government has been allocating enormous amounts on 'fast-track' projects such as the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, Diabari-Motijheel Metrorail; Dohazari-Cox's Bazar-Ramu-Ghundhum rail line and the Payra Deep Seaport. Huge investments have also poured into the expansion of road-rail networks and river engineering.
Several international organisations have already recognised Bangladesh as one of the fastest-growing economies. On the flip side, however, very little attention has been paid to the environmental impact of these projects designed to quench the country's thirst to become a developing economy.
A cursory look at the country's air quality, which has been consistently ranked as one of the 'most polluted in the world', is indication of how far behind we are in terms of ensuring that our development model is environmentally compatible.
Even the incumbent environment, forest and climate change minister, M Shahab Uddin, last year admitted that Dhaka city's air quality worsened between 2016 and 2019 due to the construction of many mega infrastructure projects.
All this becomes even more pertinent because during the ongoing COP26, Bangladesh has positioned itself as one of the leaders in calling out developed countries for their carbon-emitting development models that leave severe adverse impacts on countries like ours.
So how far do our infrastructure projects integrate environmental concerns?
According to experts in the field, while all our development projects were initiated following environmental impact assessments (EIAs), the ground realities, once the projects start taking shape, become vastly different. Sometimes, EIAs are also not enough to protect the country's environment from the adverse effects of massive projects largely due to lack of enforcement.
Take, for example, the 29.73km Itna-Mithamain-Ashtagram highway connecting some remote areas of the Kishoreganj district. Although the project was initiated to streamline the economic inclusion of the haor-based people, it is now disturbing the ecology of the vast wetlands.
"My study suggests that the particular highway - which is 'submersible' - is going to make more than 3,500 acres of land infertile. It will reduce rice production and fish catch in the coming years," said Gawher Nayeem Wahra, a disaster management expert.
According to Wahra, the road interrupts the sand silt-laden upstream currents in the monsoon. Because of early sedimentation, the arable lands have been covered by sand. Before the road construction, the mighty currents would wash away the sand next to the Bhairab channel.
The authorities are now saying that an elevated expressway concept will be more suitable for developing road communication in the haor belt. "But the damage already done by the Itna-Mithamain-Ashtagram highway is irreversible with local farmers becoming the ultimate victims," Wahra added.
The disaster management expert observed that infrastructural development in Bangladesh takes place without impartial feasibility testing and impact assessment, to serve vested interest groups.
He cited another example. Without an impact assessment, many municipal authorities are 'selling' licences on the installation of submersible wells at building construction sites. The municipal authorities do not know the adverse impacts of so many submersible wells in a small area. They do not even have a detailed area plan (DAP).
"Giving license on submersible wells, which are deep tube wells, is a source of revenue for the municipalities. But they are favouring the real estate companies in this process. The construction of a high-rise building is not possible without water supply from a deep tube-well," Wahra continued.
There are some other examples of indifference in taking proper impact assessment regarding any development project in Bangladesh.
After cyclone Sidr hit the Sundarbans in 2007, the government barred the traditional honey collection business from carrying on. The move, in turn, reduced the presence of golpata or Nipa Palm and beehives across the mangrove forests.
The leaves of golpata were used in the construction of cottage roofs. As there was a scarcity of golpata, people were advised to use the asbestos cement sheets instead of the leaves. The sheets are rust-free too, they were told.
Roof-top rainwater harvesting has long been a common practice for cottage people around the area. Earlier, they preserved the rainwater that drained down from the golpata-made roof.
When the asbestos sheet replaced the natural water purifier, people contracted a cancerous substance.
"Wide-spread use of the asbestos sheet eventually helped boost the country's cement factories. The factories are importing hazardous asbestos from the countries where the use of this product is banned," Wahra explained.
The list of the government's decisions conflicting with the conservation of the environment is long. The establishment of the Savar Leather Estate on the bank of the River Dhaleshwari is just one example.
"The tannery industry in Hazaribagh polluted the River Buriganga. It was relocated to Savar without proper impact assessment. Now the project is polluting the Dhaleshwari water," said Sharif Jamil, the General Secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon–a prominent green group of Bangladesh.
Interestingly, the Centre for Policy Dialogue distinguished fellow Professor Mustafizur Rahman says that the existing legal instruments for environment conservation are quite strong enough. The Department of Environment's clearance is a prerequisite to initiating a development project in the country. Otherwise, no infrastructural development can be initiated.
"However, weaknesses in law enforcement, as we observe in almost all our institutions, result in the weak implementation of the project," he said.
He said that a lack of skills in the assessment of a project's environmental footprint, i.e. the short-term, mid-term and long-term environmental impacts of the project, also makes the development project hazardous to the environment.
The economist added, "Financial returns and economic returns are different things. Often we calculate the short-term returns or benefits from a project in consideration of financial investment. To assess the economic return, we calculate the positive-negative externalities. I think the development project planning should capture the positive-negative externalities. Planners must assess all the potential adverse impacts of a project."
An EIA is sometimes not enough. While a master plan for a project includes an EIA, sub-projects under the master plan can easily ignore environmental concerns - for e.g. wetland conservation - if the environmental concerns such as safeguarding the wetlands is not incorporated in the detailed area plan of the project.
Mustafizur continued, "We cannot protect the environment with only project-specific environmental assessment. A road constructor can develop an approach road harming the ecosystem of a wetland. If enquired, the constructor would say that the wetland was not mentioned in the DAP. That is why we need coordination between the master planning and the project-specific environmental auditing."
Dhaka University's Development Studies Department Chairman, Professor Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, said that the enforcement of environmental law is crucial.
"But development planners now think about Bangladesh's development aspirations first, and assessment of the environmental impacts of infrastructural development as an afterthought," he said.
He believes that the perceived tradeoff between the environment and development, or vice versa, is a false dichotomy.
"There is a strong connection between the ecosystem and the economic system. An economic policy can cause environmental degradation or support the restoration of the environment. The question is how the government can operate the economic system as well as protect the environment for the wellbeing of the society," he added.
"Hence, the government should first fix its economic strategy that will guide law enforcement and project implementation," he further explained.
The development expert also highlighted some of the main challenges to Bangladesh's transformation to wellbeing development pathways: a huge shortage of internally-generated investment, the weak enforcement of the law and inefficiency in project implementation.