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After the deluge
Villagers recover following Bangladesh's worst floods this century

Villagers on Char Ishapasha heaved a sigh of relief when the flood waters started to recede this September. For two months, the inhabitants of this island had survived by living on rafts, while the deluge of the Brahmaputra River consumed everything in sight. Abdul Karim was one of the few who stayed to witness the spectacle. ‘Day after day we stayed inside using the raft for cooking and other purposes. The raft was also our only hope for survival if the house gave in to the current or the deposit level rose further.’

What Abdul Karim meant by ‘deposit level’ is evident today. An entire village on the island, home to 28 families, has been buried under some three metres of silt. This is not surprising. At its height, the Brahmaputra is known to carry tidal waves of silt, under its surface, of nine metres in height.

Floods are a staple of life. The Bangla word for it is borsha. Villagers welcome borsha, as it carries fertile silt. Nothing, however, can compare to the flood that submerged over 60 per cent of the country during the months of July, August and early September this year. This was borna – The Deluge. For once, even the hyperbole of journalists struggled to comprehend the enormity of the disaster. Thousands of roads, highways and lanes have been swept away in 35 of the country’s 64 districts. Private property, factories and warehouses have been wrecked by standing water; tubewell water has been contaminated; bridges and culverts are unsafe to cross. According to the United Nations, 21 million people have had their homes damaged or destroyed; they are without jobs, income and food. Bangladesh, together with its development partners and the country’s coterie of non-governmental organizations, has launched a colossal relief and rehabilitation operation. According to Professor Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, the only way to recover from the disaster is to ‘put the nation on a total war footing’.

This, the worst flood in a century, had many causes. Some 90 per cent of the water in Bangladesh originates upstream. The two main monsoon axes of the summer, one in northern India and the other in the far north-east of India, discharged unusually large volumes of rainfall for an unusually long time. Bangladesh, a country of 254 rivers, is often at the mercy of the three largest: the Ganges (or Padma, to use the local name), the Brahmaputra (Jamuna) and the Meghna. The convergence of these flows leads to a high susceptibility to flooding, especially given the country’s flat topography. This year, due to the lengthy duration of monsoon rains, the convergence occurred on three occasions, one after another. By the first week of September, this was aggravated by a full moon, which stalled the discharge of flood water into the Bay of Bengal.
If this was not bad enough, a series of seismic events in the Bay of Bengal during August, which resulted in a slight shift of the sea bed, are being partly blamed for preventing flood water from flowing into the deep sea. This untimely news was a reminder that Bangladesh is a new land, in geological terms.

What comprises Bangladesh today has accreted rapidly over the past 6,000 years, building up layer upon layer of silt flowing down from the Himalayas. Bangladesh also sits on the cusp of two massive tectonic plates, the Indian and the Eurasian. As these grind into one another, they occasionally let off steam through tremors such as those that occurred in the Bay this summer.

A fractious and corrupt political culture, combined with an unresponsive and unwieldy administration, have hindered past efforts to deal with such calamities. The last great inundation, in 1988, was followed by ill-conceived attempts to instate a Flood Action Plan. The Plan was scuppered by a powerful NGO and environmental lobby because of its sheer lack of consultation with local people. The Flood Action Plan would have required forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. Its non-participatory nature was ironically summed up when the Government of Bangladesh sat with its donors at a special session on ‘participation’ in the ill-conceived Flood Action Plan in April 1994. The meeting took place behind closed doors in a five-star hotel in Dhaka. Construction work on embankments began even before environmental assessments were complete. Local people were observed breaking down the embankments of these and earlier constructions to allow flood water into their fields.

None of this will do much to help Abdul Karim and the millions of people in his predicament. But he should be warned. In the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, disastrous floods occurred back to back. This may be a statistical illusion; then again it might not.

The story goes that the animals went in two by two. In Bangladesh, it’s the floods that come in pairs. Bad as things are this year, there could be worse to come.

Abdul Hannan



Village Revolution
Ending genital mutilation in Senegal

‘In the beginning people were shocked and shouted in anger,’ says Aissa Tou Sarr about the reception of a Muslim priest who came to her village to urge that female genital mutilation be banned. ‘This was our tradition! Some walked out of the meeting.’

In the past year, village after village has declared an end to female circumcision – a practice that has existed in parts of Africa for many centuries. Sarr, in her fifties, had been the ritual circumciser for the village for decades. Using a razor blade, she performed the operation to remove the clitoris of about 200 girls every rainy season. She learned the trade from her grandmother who had circumcised her at 15. Not only was Sarr proud of her skill, it provided her with a decent living – about $8.60, lunch and a bar of soap for each operation. After the priest came and spoke out against the operation Sarr’s life was thrown into turmoil: ‘I couldn’t stop thinking, “How am I going to take care of my family? What am I going to do?”’ After weeks of argument, the village gathered and vowed never again to mutilate their girls. Sarr now depends on her brother’s charity.

She is not the only circumciser out of work. Since July last year, 29 Senegalese communities have declared an end to the practice and begun pressing others to join them.

About 130 million African women in about 28 countries suffer genital mutilation and thousands die each year as a result in childbirth or from infections and haemorrhaging. Traditionalists in Senegal still insist that it is a necessary operation. They say the clitoris smells bad, it is unclean, it grows too large for women to walk comfortably and that girls who have not had it removed are more likely to get pregnant before marriage.

American Molly Melching, who works to counter these ideas from her position as founder of the successful Senegalese agency, Tostan, says she has learned from some critical mistakes made by international organizations and Western feminists. Too often, Westerners try to persuade individuals to refuse circumcision without realizing the damaging effects on an African woman who defies her community. One Muslim leader speaking out against the operations explains: ‘Even if you learn something is bad, if it’s your tradition, you can’t just get up and stop it.’

Senegalese President Abdou Diouf recently made his first-ever declaration against female circumcision and it is now a crime punishable by six years in jail. But female circumcision still has its defenders. In a village near Ker Simbara the local imam is adamant: ‘Circumcision is normal, according to Muhammad.’

Vivienne Walt/Washington Post

Cartoon by POLYP


Reef requiem
Coral needs new lease of life

Endangered phantasmagoria - coral in the Red Sea

Jamaica is just one of the countries mourning the death of its coral reefs – 95 per cent of them are dead or dying. At the present rate of global extinction, 70 per cent of all corals will be dead in 20 to 40 years. Coral reefs cover only about 618,000 square kilometres – less than 0.3 per cent of the globe’s ocean floor. But the death of corals may kill many other species – the shallow area where coral grows is home to one million species of fish, crabs, eels, molluscs, sponges, worms, grasses, algae and other marine animals.

Practices such as using cyanide or dynamite to catch fish destroy thousands of hectares of coral every year. The Philippine fishing industry has lost more than 125,000 jobs due to reef degradation caused by the use of cyanide to stun fish, which are then captured live for restaurants and aquariums.

The International Marinelife Alliance established a government-endorsed, cyanide-free export-certification program which pays a higher price for cyanide-free fish. This has decreased cyanide use by 40 per cent.

Pollution is the other big threat to coral life. All corals need a certain amount of algae to feed on. But too much algae – which thrives on raw sewage, agricultural pesticides and fertilizer runoff – eventually choke corals to death in polluted places such as Miami.

Now corals face an unprecedented wave of pollutants. The Great Barrier Reef, off Australia’s shores, receives four to five times more nitrogen and phosphorus per year than it did a century ago. Michael Haley from the University of the West Indies says: ‘On a limestone island like Jamaica, or any place else with lots of drainage from the islands, you can be miles from the sea and be killing corals with fertilizer or other pollution.’

Realizing their value to fishers and the tourism industry, Jamaica is trying to give its coral reefs a respite. Fishing curbs and net sizes are being regulated, sewage outflows controlled and the sale of coral has been banned. Jamaican environmentalist Peter Espuet says a chain of coastal and marine protected areas are to be established around the coast to allow to try to give coral a new lease of life.

Zadie Neufville/Gemini News Service

Celebrating a thorn in the side
The Indonesian human-rights organization TAPOL celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Founder Carmel Budiardjo was one of thousands imprisoned following General Suharto’s bloody seizure of power in 1965. Released in 1971, she moved to London and two years later helped to establish TAPOL, a campaign for the release of the political prisoners (‘tapols’) she left behind.

As the years passed, TAPOL evolved into a broader Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, monitoring and highlighting the abuses of the Indonesian Government, not least its repression of people in East Timor and West Papua. Carmel Budiardjo contributed to the NI’s special issue on East Timor in 1994 and was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (alternative Nobel Prize) in 1995.

111 Northwood Road,
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Tel: +44 181 771-2904.
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email: [email protected]

Charred heritage: forest fires in Borneo, Indonesia.

Ashes to ashes
The fires in Indonesia earlier this year, from late January to May, destroyed 30,000 square kilometres of forest – an area the size of Belgium. This is six times the level of previous estimates. Almost all of the Kutai National Park in the east of Kalimantan has gone as well as the Wein River orang-utan sanctuary and unique limestone forests in the north of the province. A joint enterprise of Indonesian and German governments found that most of the fires spread from oil-palm plantations where fires are a popular but illegal way of clearing land.

New Scientist Vol 159 No 2144


Monkey business
The international trade of monkeys from Mauritius for use in experiments is booming, despite a ban. While stating officially that the export of long-tailed macaques is not permitted, officials of the Mauritius Government support the business and even impose conditions and quotas. The sale of 400 primates a year is allowed but last year 5,681 sales were reported. The trade earns the country several million dollars a year. Animal-rights campaigners from Europe have described the sales as cruel. But farmers in Mauritius say the monkeys, introduced by sailors in the seventeenth century, have become pests ruining crops. Other islanders say that the 80,000 monkeys on the island attack indigenous wildlife and eat the eggs of rare birds.

Nasseem Ackbarally/Gemini News Service

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‘ It’s the rich people I feel sorry for. They’ve never known suffering. We are used to it.’

Lek, a Bangkok noodle vendor, on the troubles
still plaguing the Thai economy a year after devaluation.

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New Internationalist issue 307 magazine cover This article is from the November 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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