"Only when the last tree is cut down, the last fish caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money."- these wise words has been widely propagated as a prophesy attributed to Cree Indians. It often takes hundreds of years for humans to find back wisdom in old sayings.
In fact, taking care of nature has become the talk of the world for last couple of months. Researchers in China suggested that the novel coronavirus may have passed to humans from smuggled pangolins at a wet market in Wuhan. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola virus also jumped to humans from various wild animals.
Based on these experiences and numerous other studies, environmental experts are now warning that the novel coronavirus will not be the last pandemic to wreak havoc if human beings continue to ignore links between infectious diseases and destruction of the natural world.
Known as zoonotic diseases, these are best kept under control by protecting wildlife habitats and preventing exposure to wildlife. Also, there is this "dilution effect," which refers to decreased disease risk due to the presence of high diversity in host species. In this context, this year's theme for World Environment Day is "Celebrate Biodiversity."
Conservation of biodiversity begins with environmental awareness.
It is quite usual for developing countries to ignore environmental concerns at the initial phases of development. This was also the case for now in most developed countries. As if, economic growth is the only thing that matters, and a healthy environment and biodiversity are optional. 'Nature is money,' in the parlance of GDP loving economists, politicians and capitalists. See how Covid-19 has hit our beloved economy?
It is crucial to understand that failure to protect ecosystems and maintain natural balance only costs us more money and other resources in the long run. This is not only limited to buying bottled water or in an extreme but newly developed scenario, canned "fresh air"- a product that a Canadian company actually started selling in China.
The case of Bangladesh is no different.
In the 1980s, Bangladesh started to export frog legs for the restaurants in rich countries. It brought the largest amount of foreign exchange after shrimp export back then. However, studies revealed that export of frogs caused pesticide sales to soar in the country afterwards. The trade was a clear economic loss: $30 million were being spent on pesticides per year to bring in only $10 million from the export of frog legs (Marie Jacques, Bengali Frog Exports and the Environmental Impact, TED Case Studies, Volume 9, Number 1, January, 1999).
What we considered an export item was basically an insectivore and a free, natural import substitute for insecticides. Although the export stopped, the frog population in the country could never grow back, and use of insecticides only increased over time.
Or take the example of rivers being used as a free drainage system for industrial and municipal wastewater. After having polluted all the rivers surrounding Dhaka city beyond treatment, Bangladesh government is now implementing a project to collect and treat water from Meghna River for supplying it to Dhaka. The project cost initially stood at $450 million.
Now, an Asian Development Bank report says an additional $175.2 million will be required per year to clean the Meghna water because the river is being polluted by industrial waste from numerous small and medium-sized textile industries, as well as untreated domestic wastewater from housing areas located alongside it.
According to the report, "The Meghna River, and its tributaries and distributaries, comprise a globally significant ecosystem for biodiversity, resources, and unique habitats for different species of fish and wildlife including amphibians, reptiles, Gangetic dolphins and other mammals. It is a biodiversity corridor linking the coast with the upstream Haor Basin of Greater Sylhet. The stretch of river between the Meghna and Bhairab bridges in the upper Meghna is high in ecological value and biodiversity."
Yet, we didn't flinch from using the majestic river as a sewer to dump poison into. If the above paragraph does not provide enough motivation to certain development-loving people to conserve the river, let me mention that according to the ADB report, the economic value of the Meghna River is estimated to be nearly $183 million per year. Nature is money, I said. And this applies to all natural waterbodies.
When it comes to preserving natural means, Dams and barrages are a serious impediment. Such structures built in the upper riparian country India increases siltation on transboundary rivers flowing through Bangladesh in the lean season, and flooding in the monsoon. On top of that, embankments built within the country prevent the silt from depositing on the land, a process through which Bangladesh came to being in the first place, and became so fertile a land.
Barrages built in the Indian part of the rivers not only affect Bangladesh. In 2017, Indian state of Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar demanded that the Farakka barrage be decommissioned, saying it had no utility and caused floods in the state every year.
To put it into perspective, according to a study, from 2006 to 2014, Bangladesh suffered a loss of more than 4 million metric ton of rice production worth about $1 billion from Teesta area alone, due to the barrages built in Indian part of the river. The value of lost biodiversity is not included in the study.
The impacts of embankments are multifaceted. Polder dikes in the coastal area caused the riverbeds to rise due to increased siltation, as a result of which, average tide is now higher than the polders. Therefore, during spring tides and storm surges, saline water enters the polders, eventually leading to population displacements. On the other hand, a recent experiment conducted in one polder proved that free tidal flooding makes the land higher with accumulated silt.
The bottom line is, in association with decreased fresh water flow from the upstream due to Farakka barrage, coastal embankments are causing increased salinity and loss of land in the context of rising sea level.
The planet Earth was formed over 4.5 billion years ago. It has evolved geologically ever since. A relative stability and balance has been achieved throughout the process. Life on the planet has a complex symbiosis. Humans did not design a bit of it. Yet, human actions are altering atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes. Evidences clearly suggest that this is not doing any good to the biodiversity on the planet, human species included.
Celebrating this year's World Environment Day today, the United Nations has echoed the prophecy of Cree Indians. On its website, UN has put up these words: The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature. Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message: To care for ourselves we must care for nature. It's time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices. It's time to build back better for People and Planet.
It's time for Nature.