A tale of two cities — Venice and Barisal

Twelve-year-old Zaheer swishing, swashing and splashing in a lake in the neighbourhood in a district headquarters in Bangladesh cannot think of the scarcity of water let alone water bankruptcy as the district is Barisal. He only knows the river — a source of fun and frolicking for him along with his fellows and also a cause of sadness — is running by their house from time immemorial. Every year their homestead along with the cattle and other pets washed away either by flood or flash flood with routinely devouring of their arable lands by the river. Whenever he is free catches fish, plies boat, swims, dives and jumps into the river water whenever he wants to ward off the sweltering heat of the summer, albeit sometimes ignoring the dangers warned by his parents.

Zaheer’s cousin Zaber lives in Venice, a beautiful Italian city, on the Adriatic Sea. He lives with his family in the Venetian city. When Zaber was a young boy he had a traumatic experience of flood in 1988 when the whole country particularly Barisal was greatly affected by the flood. However when his father got a sponsor visa to go to Italy, he and his mom and others were very elated at the thought that they will settle in a European country with great happiness. The place will be free from the hazards faced by the people of riverine Barisal. But man proposes but Allah disposes. Zaber’s father found his fate settled in Venetian city, which initially look much like their own town Barisal, heavily crisscrossed by a number of rivers. There are eight lagoons, which are the main source of beauty of the town. Among many other similarities between these cities, the most striking one is flooding. High tides have been invading the city since the 6th century. The biggest tide on record hit November 4, 1966, reaching more than six feet above sea level.

Zaheer, as a boy of Class XI, knows about flooding of their town every year but he neither knows how much water he uses everyday nor the amount of water his urban cousin, who lives in Dhaka, needs a day. The amount of the valuable liquid he uses is sourced from Himalayan glaciers, most of which will be melted into water by 2100, gives water to two billion people in the Himalayan region. How many litres of water in a week he drinks or uses for a bath. Zaheer can not even imagine after two decades — warned by the water experts — when he will be around 40 there will be no fresh water for drinking and other household purposes. May be there will be water and water everywhere but there won’t be a drop to drink as ST Coleridge depicts in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Not only that the region will experience scarcity of sweet water for their arable lands, which their family solely depends on for grain crops. Due to unlawful withdrawal of water from trans-boundary river in the upstream particularly by India has pushed the level of salinity in the coastal belt.

Bangladesh will be one of the top most victims of climate change in the world. Melting of the glaciers due to rise of world temperature will affect the deltaic land in the most devastating way. The rise in sea level will devour the whole country in a span of 100 years, as experts warn. Climate change will reduce the tourist and fishing activities along the coastal region and seashore. Like the tourism of Maldives Bangladesh mangrove forest, Sundarban, will be endangered with the rise of mean sea level. Biodiversity will also be lost.

However all these he came to be conscious about by Zaber, who is very studious and regularly keeps himself updated with the current news and international affairs. He regularly writes to his Bangladeshi cousin. He used to put a series of questions on water through his letter. Recently Zaber was visiting Zaheer and their family in Barisal, a Bangladeshi coastal district like Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong, Khulna and Patuakhali. He came to the country of his birth after 12 years. When his family left Bangladesh to settle in Italy permanently Zaber was a boy of fifteen and his cousin was merely a new born baby. The river, where Zaheer baths, was a bigger one but it has somewhat shrunk and its depth has substantially reduced due to siltation in a span of 12 years. Their river is nothing but a tributary of a trans-boundary river springing from Himalayan glacier.

Zaber writes to his poor but talented Bangladeshi cousin whenever he can make time. In answer to some questions of Zaheer once Zaber wrote that each day an average person uses 35 litres of toilet flushing, 30 litres for cooking and drinking, 30 litres for bathing and 12-20 litres for using a shower. The average daily total per person is 140 litres and an average family uses 480 litres of water a day. He further wrote it takes 31600 litres of water to make one car and 4124 litres to make one tonne of steel. It takes 53 litres of water to make one pair of leather shoes and nine litres of water to make every comic that you read. At the end of 1970s 1.2 billion people in the third world were without a safe supply of drinking water and Zaheer is one of them. The information that every day throughout the world 25000 people die from diseases related to dirty water chilled him to backbone.

The other day Zaber wrote that the heavily industrialized countries may have waged war on countries rich in water resources, particularly the developing countries. For the large-scale production industrial goods the developed countries may have dried up their own sources of water. When they will have no water for their use as they have already consumed both surface and underground water available, they may have embarked on certain plans to buy water through pipelines as cross-boundary oil or gas pipelines. When different food, beverage, technology conglomerates will fall in position to loose water necessary for the production of billions of tonnes of food, million cans of drinks and beverage, lakhs of cars and other technological instruments, they may eye on water resources of poor countries.

Once when Zaheer came to know about the patenting of river water by a company, became almost outwitted. He asked his cousin to explain about the perplexing patenting war. Zaber, whom Zaheer called Mr Water, wrote the world is heading toward ‘water bankruptcy’ as demand for the precious commodity outstrips even high population growth, a new report warned. In less than 20 years water scarcity could lose the equivalent of the entire grain crops of India and the United States, said a World Economic Forum report, which added that food demand is expected to skyrocket in coming decades.

‘The world simply cannot manage water in the future in the same way as in the past or the economic web will collapse,’ said the report.

Water has been consistently under-priced in many regions and has been wasted and overused, the report said. Many places in the world are on the verge of ‘water bankruptcy’ following a series of regional water ‘bubbles’ over the past 50 years. The report said energy production accounts for about 39 per cent of all water used in the US and 31 per cent of water withdrawals in the European Union. Only three per cent is actually consumed, but competition for access to water will intensify over the next two decades.

Water requirements for energy are expected to grow by as much as 165 per cent in the US and 130 per cent, putting a major ‘squeeze’ on water for agriculture, said the WEF.

The WEF said that within two decades water will become a mainstream theme for investors – even better than oil.

When these two cousins went to Kuakata in Patuakhali, Zaber informed him that a vested quarter in Bangladesh, which wants to hike the water price, is very active. The quarter wants to serve corporate interest. This lobby echoes the voice of the chiefs of the food and drink conglomerates at meeting of the World Economic Forum. The meeting ended recently at Davos in Switzerland. Zaheer was dismayed at the information and fell into deep tension, thinking that what would happen to the poor Bangladeshis, particularly the citizens of Dhaka city who lack fresh water. Because Zaheer knows his relatives, who spend 60 per cent their income for pay off the house rent, don’t afford pricy water.

While walking along the Kuakata sea beach where visitors can enjoy both the sunset and sunrise on the same seashore, they went on talking about many similarities about these two cities — Venice and Barisal, which is called the Venice of Bangladesh. Zaber praised about the city of Venice while his cousin tried heart and soul to speak of the natural beauty of Barisal city, his native town. Spurred by chauvinism they locked in praising their cities of their own living. Zaber said, ‘We used to live in the ground floor but recently we have moved to the first floor as over the years the mean sea level of Adriatic Sea has risen and the ground floor has become uninhabitable’. The same thing was done by Zaheer’s family in Barisal as they elevated the ground floor after breaking the old floor, which often gets inundated with a small shower of rain. And in recent years as good number of sags and cracks have appeared on the floor and during rainy season the half of the ground floor goes underwater, they have constructed a new floor and shifted to that floor. They talked about the disappearance of Kuakata sea beach, Cox’s Bazar, damage done by Sidr, havoc caused by Tsunami and went on talking about the things matter for the people of the cities endangered by the melting of mountain glaciers and by the seas. Asked why the glaciers are melting, Mr Water said, ‘It is because of emission of carbon-dioxide by rich countries including Italy and the Chlorofluorocarbon not only depleting the three-kilometer thick ozone layer allowing ultra violet ray of the sun into the atmosphere’. ‘And this ultra violet is mainly responsible for the increase in world temperature, which is melting the glacier, the source of fresh water, and giving rise to sea levels enormously’, he added. The sun was down in the Kuakata beach as the ticked by but they lost into oblivion and unaware of the time as they went on thinking that what would happen to them, their families above all the whole world.


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