In Cox's Bazar's Kutupalong refugee camp, where over half a million Rohingyas live, Oxfam's Salahuddin Ahmmed collects 60,000 of the estimated 1.8 million litres of "infectious human waste" each day for a processing plant. As Michael Hayes tells us in an informative article (Asia Times, March 06, 2019), Ahmmed has become popularly known as "the king of shit" locally. Putting his "thinking cap" on exposes how innovation-starved Bangladesh is well poised to convert a host of other "shit" productively.
With Oxfam, he has helped build the Centralised Fecal Sludge Management Plant (CFSMP), "the largest such fecal waste plant in any refugee camp on the planet." Using gravel, sunlight, and coconut fibre filter, the waste gets processed in a large open pit with minimal operational labour. His venture is catching on. Of course, we do not necessarily expect this same facility in Jordanian, Syrian, Turk, or West Europe refugee camps, where other locally-geared/groomed innovative outlets to the same problem would have emerged, but the adage that adversity makes odd bedfellows with innovation comes alive. At their best, innovative juices may end up resolving simply intractable inconveniences/problems that their negative connotations may have hindered alleviation of.
Why this is good news for Bangladesh outside of the refugee camps is because the country seems to be shutting down its innovative flair just when one insoluble problem after another litters up every nook and corner in the country. We look at them as some sort of a "lost cause," that our little, often patronising, input would be far overtaken by so many others exacerbating that problem that we meekly resign; or that we are just too preoccupied raking in the material goods that the country's rise from a pit-bottom status has allowed its people over the past two or three decades to bother about the nether world. In the process, we miss the lesson behind an even more inspiring past story than at Kutupalong: how Bangladesh transformed from a "basket-case" at birth into an "emerging country" today, capable of rising into the Top-25 of all countries in economic size.
To do so, we have to really pull up our socks. We could begin by looking outside our posh Dhaka residence. At our very doorstep lurks contamination from one of the world's most polluted urban areas. To that we may add, again, right before our very eyes, the far more infectious particles from gas-guzzling vehicles every minute of every day. Pretending that those are "other people's problems, and not ours," we simply dump our trash out on to the street, or "anywhere" out there, as if the environment is alien to our hedonistic lifestyles, or if it is not, then it is as Mother Nature's vacuum cleaner, not ours. We go on to construct more buildings than create more spaces for vitally needed recreation, fresh air, and physical exercises. As those atmospheric particles enter our bloodstream "causing cancers, strokes and heart diseases, stunting children's growth and development, and even reducing . . . intelligence" (Alex Thornton, World Economic Forum, Newsletter, March 5, 2019), we head off to a Kolkata or Singaporean clean-me-up hospital. We do not want to be a statistic, one of the 8.0 million people unnecessarily dying worldwide from pollution. None of these diseases should ever have been there in the first place: if we seriously yearn for life-longevity, we would nip them off, bit by bit.
Sporadic cleansing efforts aside, Dhaka was still ranked as the 17th worst city in terms of pollution in the 2018 World Air Quality Report and by Greenpeace. It does not help us to say that a bulk of the other cities with a worse record than ours belong to an aspiring world-leading country, our very own neighbour, India. We should, instead, concentrate on climbing out of the 114th spot, among 126 countries, on the 2018 Global Innovation Index by producing solution.
As one of the most congested countries on earth, Bangladesh's other challenges should also be met with a different "hat" on. For example, how we create spaces for recreation, fresh air, and physical exercises, depends greatly upon how we design and construct urban areas. Relating residential and occupational zones to the lifeblood sectors (schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, markets, recreation facilities, and so forth), is a vital start: if done thoughtfully, with transportation media interlacing them, a giant stride can be taken to de-congest other areas. Once again, another huge arena of innovative projects can help the country just as the Kutupalong fecal plants helped the Rohingyas. On the threshold of building Purbachal township, we have innovative outlets galore if we are gallant enough to grab them.
Our huge population and eroding coastline thrust us into yet another arena demanding "thinking outside the traditional box." Energy can be brought into the picture here, the paucity of which has always stared us directly in the face for too long without even any catalysing steps towards a long-term solution. Indeed, our dependence upon fossil-fuels and large (yet almost depleted) gas-fields keep us from seriously exploring alternate sources. We might not have the infrastructures to experiment with large-scale energy-producing alternatives, but exploited with care, Mother Nature's golden rule has been to rarely leave its subjects helplessly stranded.
We have produced enough graduates and thinkers to squeeze out some solar alternatives, or harness wind power, to meet our exploding needs. Scattered breakthroughs notwithstanding, these have not been fully and commercially exploited to challenge our growing energy problem. With more "kings of shit," to wit, Salahuddin Ahmmeds, we would have been inching our way out of specific crises (like the Kutupalong refugee influx), and eventually national problems (like the fecal treatment plant did for the entire 1.9 million Rohingya refugees dotting the country).
Rooftop-positioned solar-energy contraptions could be a start: how to harness extant knowledge for the larger population would set the spinning-wheel into motion, and from which one could, for example, shift into rooftop gardening to alleviate ground-soil pressures. One might recall how long electric automobiles have been on the drawing-board, left pending because petroleum prices were too low to make them viable. By hastening climate-change havocs, they are now being tested on Main Streets at lower costs. Innovations become cost-effective if transported to a playground straightaway, while simultaneously pollution-control gadgets also get attention. This is particularly so now that microbes and plastic-gulping bacteria have been found to pave the way to a healthier future, indeed, even releasing usable energy for humans.
Making these happen requires a start-up. Here the private sector may be too slow to help since only immediate profits attract investors. The government could compensate by, for example, fostering strings of problem-dissolving projects in annual scientific, technological, and environmental competitions, at every level, from school to the post-graduate. A few years of sustained engagements would produce the trickles of innovations the country badly needs to escape embarrassingly low rankings on innovation indexes.
A little bit of "shit" is all one needs to brainstorm, before barging up any innovation list, progressing one idea at a time, enhancing one upward step at a time. Since conquering "shit," after all, has always been a relieving exercise, opening our nose, eyes, and ears to it is unlikely to embarrass.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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