Expediting environmental policy: Interview with Bangladesh minister Saber Hossain Chowdhury

  • Dhaka is considered to have some of the poorest air quality of any city in the world, the result of industrial-scale coal- and wood-burning brick kilns, diesel-powered vehicles, and ongoing construction work.
  • At the same time, sea-level rise, shrimp cultivation and reduced water flow in its major rivers leave the southwestern part of the country barren for nearly half of the year due to saltwater intrusion.
  • Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s newly appointed minister of environment, forest and climate change, has declared a 100-day baseline program to identify the various environmental issues in the country and possible solutions to overcome them.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Chowdhury emphasizes the need for strong coordination across government, political will and leadership, and increased awareness from the public to protect the environment and meet the country’s clean energy goals.

Saber Hossain Chowdhury was appointed Bangladesh’s new minister of environment, forest and climate change on Jan. 11, 2024. Part of the new government that will hold office for the next five years, he’s already made radical decisions on national environmental policy. Chief among these is the “100-day program” approach to tackling critical issues within an expedited time frame.

A former chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on environmental affairs, Chowdhury is no stranger to many of the pressing issues that Bangladesh faces today, from persistent air pollution to saltwater intrusion into the water table, to protecting the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Mongabay’s Abu Siddique spoke with Chowdhury to talk about his new approach to environmental policymaking, the importance of water conservation, and the thorny question of why, despite so much effort and funding for tiger conservation, the population of the big cat in Bangladesh continues to decline. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: For the first time, Bangladesh plans a 100-day target to protect the environment. Why this is? Why are you considering reducing air pollution first?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: Let me share some background on why we should have taken this target. First, I think it is to give a powerful message and signal to the public that we know how critical the situation is. When we respond to any crisis considering this, we must acknowledge that there is a crisis. So I think that is important because sometimes some government officials can’t be involved in that and reflect that they have not done a good job. So, a 100-day program is to identify the priority of the crisis in the context of the seriousness of the issues. We have to be honest with the public and let them know that these problems need to be fixed on a priority basis. Of course, the 100-day program is not the only thing the ministry is doing. These are the priorities for which we are putting more focus. And it will also serve as a basis for what we do over the next four and a half years. It is not just for transparency but also for ensuring accountability because when we finish our term, the people have a right to do a postmortem on whether we can deliver to meet the challenges we face today. At the same time, it is a clear signal to the various divisions and departments under the ministry that we need to act together, considering that business as usual is not an option for us. We need to step further.

In this case, we have identified air pollution as the area we prioritize the most. We have already identified the sources of indoor and outdoor air pollution. We have started to act. Among them, brick kilns are not the only sources of pollution; dust from construction activities and sulfur elements in diesel fuel in our transport system also play a role in air pollution. To solve the crisis the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change alone can’t solve the issue; it should be a whole government approach as the other different ministers are involved in the crisis. We are contacting the relevant agencies. What we have been doing till now is simply not enough. We must step up. As a part of this, we have already set up a complaint center where we are receiving around 400 calls daily. That means the problem is there, and people are serious about that, and we need to respond.

Saber Hossain Chowdhury using public transport.
Chowdhury is no stranger to many of the pressing issues that Bangladesh faces today, from persistent air pollution to saltwater intrusion into the water table, to protecting the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Mongabay: Brick kilns, transport and the energy sector are the major sources of air pollution. What is your plan to improve these?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: The job of the Department of Environment under the ministry is to set the standard, and enforcement is not our responsibility. Here, we have two aspects. For enforcement, we need the cooperation of the local administration. A few days back, at the annual conference of the district commissioners, we sent a clear message in this regard. Also, we cooperate with the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, responsible for looking into the fitness of vehicles running on the road. We need the support of the police, city mayors and elected representatives in legislatures across the country — that is why I said this is a total government approach.

Mongabay: Do you think the recent decision to phase out traditional bricks to save topsoil will work in the long run? Because the brickmakers aren’t happy with the decision.

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: The plan we have is very practical. We have targeted 500 brick kilns causing most of the damage. If you look at the average production capacity of each brick kiln, it’s about 5 million bricks each year. If we remove 500 brick kilns, 2.5 billion bricks will not be produced there. We can replace such bricks with alternative bricks made of other materials but not use topsoil from arable land. As per the statistics, we are losing 3 billion metric tons of topsoil each year for producing bricks, causing significant harm to agricultural productivity. If we go for the alternative, we can save the topsoil, and secondly, kilns are responsible for burning coal and wood, causing air pollution too. By implementing the plan, we will get a twofold advantage. It is not a question of who is happy or unhappy; we are encouraging the brick kiln owners to transform their method and come to a cleaner way. For this, the government’s financial agencies will develop different schemes to help them implement the transformation.

Mongabay: What about the clean energy target? According to the nationally determined contribution (NDC), Bangladesh is supposed to achieve at least 20% clean energy by 2030, but has yet to reach 5%.

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: Besides the NDC, the target in our Integrated Energy Master Plan is to ensure 40% clean and renewable energy by 2040. We have several events in the pipeline. We have an option to use offshore wind and solar power. The challenge of solar power is we don’t have enough land for that. However, we are looking for rivers and water bodies to use floating solar energy as a distinct possibility. The other area we are looking at is transforming diesel-run irrigation pumps to solar-run irrigation pumps. If we can do this properly, it will ensure 5,000 megawatts of clean energy. It is all about the political will, and our government has already canceled about 10 potential coal-fired power plants in the last few years. Moreover, Bangladesh plans to do so voluntarily despite our limited contribution to the global emissions scenario.

Laborers at a brickfield in Amin Bazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Laborers at a brickfield in Amin Bazar, Dhaka. The government recently made a decision to phase out traditional bricks to save topsoil. Image by Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman.

Mongabay: Cleaning the river surrounding Dhaka is urgent, as potable water from the surface source is needed to reduce groundwater use. While many projects have taken place, including moving out the leather-tanning industry, the situation remains the same. Do you have any plans for this?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: We are going to enforce the environmental standards for the tannery [that has been] strictly relocated. We have recently visited the tannery area’s current location with the industry minister, and we all understand the seriousness of maintaining the standards, as the issue is not only environmental but also a matter of public health. The damage is caused by decreasing oxygen levels in the water and increasing heavy metals, which we found extremely hazardous to public health. And we are going to be acting. We cannot allow industries to discharge their effluent into the rivers. We must regulate; we have laws, and they are going to be enforced strictly. I believe that the government has the political will to do that. The other aspect is the plastic that goes into the river. Our target is to reduce single-use plastics by 90% by 2026. We are working on categories that will go under single-use plastics and introduce available alternatives. The concern is when the plastic goes into the water, it becomes microplastic. When the fish consumes that, it is transferred to the human body. We have been considering the issue seriously.

Mongabay: Do you have any plans to coordinate with the other ministries, especially the agriculture ministry, to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as those harm the ecosystem?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: These are the areas we have on our radar. We need to step forward one after another. You can expect that the environment ministry will be far more active, engaged and focused from now on and from the past. All the issues you mentioned are hazardous to public health and must be addressed. Protecting public health is one of the fundamental principles of our Constitution. We are trying to solve the issue with a holistic approach that enables all the related agencies, though it is one of the major challenges to the coordination. Besides policy enforcement, behavioral changes in the public mindset are also necessary to address the issues. For this, we have planned to include the green issue in our school curriculum to sensitize the younger generation so that the changes come from the beginning.

Mongabay: Salinity in southwestern Bangladesh is a significant concern. Sea-level rise, shrimp cultivation and reduced flow from the Ganga River as it flows from India during the dry season play substantial roles. What plan do you have to overcome the situation?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: The impact of salinity intrusion is not just on our food security by making the agricultural lands barren. It also impacts our women’s health. The nexus between health and the environment is now becoming more and more clear. We already had our National Adaptation Plan, which invested 130 interventions, and this is a very inclusive process. All related agencies, including the U.N., are involved in solving the crisis, which requires $9 billion a year just for the adaptation. Currently, the NAP we have does not have any intervention relating to health, and we are looking into including the issue there.

Sea-level rise is inevitable. To address the problem, building an embankment might be a solution, though it is cost-sensitive. Sea-level rise is also responsible for human displacement, as many people are migrating from the area and losing their livelihoods.

Regarding transboundary river issues, the reality is that we are a downstream country, and I believe we will reach a regional initiative to solve the problem through our good and cordial relationships with our upstream neighbors.

The negative impacts of shrimp farming are very clear. Besides the Sundarbans, the other mangrove forest in Bangladesh is located in the southeastern part of Bangladesh, called Chokoria- Sundarbans, which has been destroyed by shrimp cultivation. We must do a proper cost-benefit analysis of shrimp farming and take action based on that. The same applies to our leather industry adjacent to Dhaka. It gives us some export revenue, but at the same time, the health cost is very high. We have [to do] the analysis and go for what benefits the country and people.

A farmer holds green vegetables in his farm.
A farmer holds green vegetables in his farm. “The impact of salinity intrusion is not just on our food security by making the agricultural lands barren,” says Chowdhury. Image courtesy of BRAC.

Mongabay: Environmental issues are intertwined with many other problems, requiring intensive coordination with other ministries. For instance, if we want to ensure adequate water from upstream, especially the Ganga and Teesta, during the dry season, we need a proper move from the Ministry of Water Resources. Water flow is directly related to ecosystem conservation. What kind of cooperation are you expecting?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: The negotiating entities with the neighboring countries are well-defined. It is important to ensure the environmental inputs to the focal points so they can raise the issue in the discussion. On our part, we are trying to give them the best input.

Mongabay: What is your plan regarding increasing forest coverage and protecting the largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans? Are you still considering social forestry by planting alien species like acacia and eucalyptus to increase forest coverage?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: We have already moved away from the eucalyptus. We have adopted policies, and of course we must have the courage to recognize that some policies have not worked well. We should be able to review them accordingly. Regarding protecting the Sundarbans, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Bangladesh and India in 2011 to protect the forest jointly. We need to carry forward the initiative for sustainable conservation. At the same time, we must look for sustainable livelihoods for the 3.5 million people dependent on the Sundarbans’ resources. Otherwise, the conservation works will not last long.

Mongabay: Regarding tiger conservation, Bangladesh has been spending a remarkable amount of money since 2004. However, Bangladesh’s population of Bengal tigers declined to 118 from 440 in 2004. What are the shortfalls here?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: I don’t want to go back in time and say what we have done and to what extent it was appropriate. I can say that a new census is currently being conducted, and we have installed the highest number of camera traps than in the past. I am hopeful we will see an increase in the numbers compared to the last survey. We will try to increase whatever we get in the census results released in June or July.

Mongabay: Nowadays, ocean resources are the future economy. What is your plan in this regard?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: We need to pay a lot more attention to the potential of the blue economy. The current government is very focused in this area, and I see immense potential there. How Bangladesh will improve in the next 50 years will depend on exposing that potential to some extent. For long-term sustainability, I am hopeful the country will take the leverage from culturing resources like seaweed and others underwater in our ocean.

Mongabay: We have many acts and policies to protect the environment. But the proper implementation of those is absent. How do you handle these issues?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury: Implementation and enforcement are always challenges. It is not for environmental ones. As the current government is newer and I have been here for the last few months, we are learning fast, implementing the laws, and moving on, which needs support from the other related agencies. Most importantly, if the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change strongly ensures coordination and leadership, other agencies and ministries will respond. Then, enforcement and implementation will be done automatically. Yes, it’s a challenge, and we must take it on.

Banner image: Saber Hossain Chowdhury interacting with the press. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.