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Bangladesh (Violence)

Siraj Miya


Siraj Miya, farmer

In the village of Matlab, Siraj Miya and his children are working land that has been in their family for generations. Their rice harvest is meager — barely enough to cover their expenses and not nearly enough to help his daughters break the chains of poverty. Without a dowry their chances of marriage are slim, an education is completely out of the question.


Thomas Homer-Dixon, scientist

"One of the things that you find in many societies that are on the brink of violence is that things can change suddenly in a very sharp, sudden way. And often we're very surprised by what happens when the violence occurs because it just explodes in our face.

"You have a society that's under, extreme ecological stress and there's no new agricultural land to open up. As the land is handed from one generation to another, it gets divided into smaller and smaller parcels, and people as a result become poorer.

"You have to think of environmental stress as kind of an underlying pressure, kind of almost tectonic stress within the society that increases the likelihood of violence but doesn't necessarily cause it by itself. It has to come with other things such as weak governments, availability of weapons, and also deep ethnic cleavages within a society that can make violence more likely. And then all of a sudden, you get a dramatic outbreak of riots in the streets."

Ramaswamy, community activist

"Over the last two decades or so, impoverished Bangladeshis keep coming into India for livelihood. They may be here for just a day, or a few days, or a few months, so for the poor boundaries don't really matter. When they have to survive, they will scale any boundaries. They will go over them, through them, or under them because poverty does not recognize boundaries.

"It's because of years and years of deprivation, poor sanitation, scarcity of drinking water, general degraded environment, that a kind of rage builds up, and it just needs small sparks to set it on fire and riots can break out.

"The sheer lack of services and the degraded nature of the environment all the time itself constitutes a kind of violence on the dignity of these people — so it isn't surprising when suddenly, something provocative can lead people to a frenzy."

Violence | Disease

Located in South Asia, Bangladesh is virtually surrounded by India and the Bay of Bengal to the south. But in many ways, the nation's fate is dictated by the world's highest mountain range looming to the north — the Himalayas. Nourished by enormous amounts of snow melt, Bangladesh's heart and soul is a complex highway of hundreds of rivers and streams that carry more water through this tiny nation than flows through all of Europe. The Himalayas also act as a barrier, protecting the land from the frigid Siberian winds. But the protection comes with a price — a highly volatile tropical monsoon season.

Bangladesh's heart and soul is a complex highway of hundreds of rivers and streams that carry more water through this tiny nation than flows through all of Europe.

Only a few feet above sea level, for two months each year floods sweep across much of Bangladesh, washing away hundreds of thousands of acres of precious farmland. Although this annual event has always been a part of the fabric of life, sometimes the monsoon season turns catastrophic.

Boats in dry season

Boats in dry season

Bangladesh's population is extreme. Nearly 132 million people — roughly half the population of the United States — are packed into an area the size of New York State. Bangladesh's poverty is extreme, with an average income of $225 dollars a year. Simply surviving from day to day is extreme. And in the unyielding hardness of life, reactions are extreme and often violent.

How did this happen? How could a nation's security become so closely linked to severe environmental pressures? The answers lie in Bangladesh past, both recent and ancient.

Ironically, in a country that suffers from massive seasonal flooding, Bangladesh's biggest problem is the lack of water. For ten months each year there is little or no rain. Even worse, upstream dams built in India on the Ganges River are diverting nearly 40 percent of water away from Bangladesh.

Though politicians fiercely debate the controversy, political rhetoric doesn't ease the pain. The delicate balance between man and nature is slowly collapsing. Sources of water used for irrigation are scarce. Though rich alluvial soil makes Bangladesh one of the most fertile nations in the world, it's useless without water.

Of Dhaka's nine million citizens, three million live in extreme squalor, with no electricity, running water or toilets.

As the pressures of land and water scarcities increase, more and more people flee the countryside for the teeming streets and back alleys of the country's capital. But Dhaka's government doesn't have the resources to cope with a crumbling infrastructure. Of its nine million citizens, three million live in extreme squalor, with no electricity, running water or toilets. An open sewer runs behind their huts and empties into the city's river. Disease is rampant. It's just one more example of the mounting burdens of environmental stress.

Discontent often leads to violet protest

Discontent often leads to violent protest

In recent years, violent demonstrations have become commonplace. And as the pressures of political instability and poverty become intolerable, many Bangladeshis are left with no other choice than to flee their homeland.

Bangladesh has never been about half measures. It's always been about extremes. And for those living in a country of extremes, there are no simple answers and no easy solutions. But the Bangladeshis are hard working people. They all share a common bond and a strong desire to improve the quality of their lives. They have remained committed to their land for centuries, and their hard work and commitment may yet be able to stem the tide of environmental derogation.



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