Monirul Qader Mirza, armed with a rare combination of both technical and communication skills, is positioning himself as an alternative voice in the field of environmental water resources management in Bangladesh.
The New Idea
Bangladesh is perhaps the only country where water is as dominant an element of the environment as land. This giant delta carries most of the runoff from the world's largest mountains and edges so gradually into the Bay of Bengal that the difference for miles is measured in inches.
Mirza is setting out to provide a new voice in the most important environmental and developmental issue facing the country--how to manage its water resources. As a trained water engineer, environmentalist, and writer, he is organizing a voice that is scientifically reliable and disciplined, independent, sensitive to all the human and environmental consequences of proposed interventions, and powerful.
His intervention is timely, as the government, the major international agencies, and all their ranks of consultants are setting in motion a multi billion dollar construction program designed to stop the annual flooding from the country's chief riverain arteries. He plans to conduct detailed scientific and socioeconomic studies of the consequences of this massive intervention and others like it in four sample areas, each representative of the chief natural regions of the country.
Mirza has already begun work in the Chadpur irrigation area, and plans later to cover other regions, ranging from the coastal margin to the hill tracts. This work is already identifying such problems as increasing soil salinity, which has obvious negative effects on agriculture, as well as on fish yields (as fields that, when flooded regularly, provided breeding habitats and nourishment for fish, no longer can).
Problems like these can change the overall cost benefit mathematics for those evaluating these investments, and they illustrate how the effects may affect different classes of people differently. Some relatively prosperous farmers may take up artificial fish farming as a profitable response to the higher prices of fish the lower natural fish yields will cause, but poor people will simply lose what had been an important environmental source of needed protein.
Mirza plans to use his communications skills as his slingshot in this David and Goliath debate. He is sufficiently experienced to understand the issues and to be able to marshal relevant outside help. The problem then is how to get the resulting insights firmly before experts, policymakers, and the general public. He will follow several avenues. Mirza has just launched a newsletter that covers the water resources issues key to the country's development and environmental security. He will talk directly wherever possible with officials in the relevant departments. Finally, he plans to expand on the use of the press and electronic media in and out of Bangladesh to help him frame the debate for a broad audience as well.
Mirza will provide more than critical analysis of others' plans. He is already pressing for a constitutional amendment that would, among other ends, protect Bangladesh's coastal mangroves from shrimp farming and other threats and that would help ensure environmentalists can gain ready access to the courts.
He would also like to see an administrative or legislative consolidation of the agencies responsible for the various aspects of water management in the country. As he pursues his work, he is impressed that the failure of these overlapping agencies to communicate, let alone work together, is a major cause of the stupidity, waste, and needlessly hurtful results he sees so commonly as he analyzes the overall impact of the overlapping interventions on both nature and people in the several areas he is examining.
Golden Bangladesh is blessed with fertile and regularly renewed soil, enormous riches of water, and a generally warm and sunny climate. It could be rich. However, it is, no doubt partly in consequence, one of the two most densely populated places on earth. Especially now that the Himalayas have lost much of their forest cover, it suffers increasingly from periodic devastating floods. (Because the mountains have lost much of their absorptive holding capacity, heavy rains lead to sudden massive flows of water rushing down the rivers. The increasingly silt clogged rivers then become moving inland seas.) One of the world's six poorest populations, and especially the poorest among them, consequently slips further behind.
How intelligently Bangladesh manages its natural resources will determine much of its future. However, it has only modest capacity to analyze so enormously complex a set of questions. Although the outside consultants consuming tens of millions of dollars in developing plans may not recognize it, their ability to understand is also very limited. Major modifications in Bangladesh's hydrology and associated natural and human ecosystems set in motion chains of consequences they almost certainly do not grasp.
Combining this inability to understand with the chronic lack of coordination among the many ministries, with the enormous temptations inherent in setting in motion the biggest public works project ever seen in the country, and with the country's lack of environmental training and still limited concern leaves Mirza fearful for his country.
Mirza's sense of what the country should do comes from a combination of careful and empirical grassroots research with a broad, moderate philosophy of water management.
He has devoted much of his mature life to learning the field technically and institutionally. He is reaching out to understand the experience other parts of the world have had with analogous water management systems. Most of all, he is basing his work on his detailed studies of representative affected areas. This work importantly includes listening carefully to the villagers in the affected areas.
A water management system that makes sense for a country with Bangladesh's geography would emphasize flood management, not flood elimination. Regular moderate flooding is probably, on balance, enriching and to some degree inevitable.
Once his research and analysis is complete, Mirza will begin marketing his ideas to agencies concerned with the environment. He is building up an advocacy group of well established community thought leaders with clout who will help him promote his alternative findings. He will also continue to develop a quarterly English language newsletter intended for national and international environment and development agencies to get them thinking and involved much more in this critical series of decisions for the country. He will also use meetings, seminars, and the press toward this same end.
Mirza will define and articulate major water resource issues, criticize and suggest alternative policies and implementation approaches, and, as always, press for change.
Monirul Qader Mirza was born in Luximpur in 1962. He became interested in social forestry and pisciculture by the time he was in high school, where he organized several regreening plantation programs.
He completed his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in 1984, with a specialization in water resources.
He has recently completed his master's degree in water resources engineering at BUET. Even while he developed these technical skills, he continued to practice and refine his writing--a talent he learned from his father and brother, both journalists. He also involved himself in environmental science and work. Mirza started his career as a water resources and environment journalist for the national fortnightly Bangladesh Today in 1984. He then worked for four years for the Jamna Multipurpose Bridge Authority as assistant director for river training. This experience has given him an invaluable sense of the institutional realities he faces as well as of the hands on technical problems.
He resigned in early 1991 to build his own independent base, the Centre for Environmental Studies and Research, and to expand his environmental research and advocacy work to a level required by the challenges the country faces.