Dhaka is no place for healing
In the middle of the city of Nairobi in Kenya is a 2,570 acre forest. Known as Karura Forest, this stunningly preserved piece of nature boasts 50 kilometres of nature trails where people can walk, run, or bike.
The place is not only frequented by locals looking for a bit of respite from the city, as Nairobi can be a stressful city even on the best of days, but is always listed as one of the must-see attractions for international tourists.
Protecting such a large urban forest in a country where there are still deep levels of poverty, where land grabbers patiently wait for their piece of the pie, has not been without controversy. Plenty of people stand to profit from turning Karura Forest into a series of shopping malls, maybe factories. Those things would probably make Kenya’s economic statistics look better to the outside world. A few people would get rich overnight, and there would be more jobs for everyone.
On the other hand, a priceless bit of nature would be lost, and it is hard to estimate the toll it would take on the health of the residents of the city, who still have a place to go when they want to get away from it all -- away from the diesel fumes, from the traffic noises, from all the stressors of the big city that chip away at a person’s soul.
I myself, on a trip to Kenya, have sat in the heart of Karura Forest and felt a sense of indescribable calm and well-being. Mindfully resting on a bench by a lake, surrounded by trees, in the complete quiet with no signal on my phone, I finally felt connected.
This is not some nature-fetishizing mumbo jumbo: Science has shown that positive health effects of going back to nature are very real and measurable.
Not for nothing has Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmental activist, fought tirelessly to protect Karura Forest from those who only see dollar signs. Sometimes it takes a visionary to see the big picture. Economic growth is necessary, and it is important to put money in people’s pockets, but all of this must be balanced with caring for the environment.
We are, fundamentally, biological organisms, and if we don’t give nature its due respect, nature will shake us off like a case of head lice. Dhaka is the perfect example of human beings using and abusing nature to the point that almost nothing is left.
We have chest-thumping GDP growth statistics, but an unhealthy, unhappy population, with a capital city that is known as the world’s least liveable metropolis.
Dhaka residents don’t need coronavirus scares to have a reason to wear masks. Our air pollution is the bane of our everyday existence. We are told that steps are always being taken to curb the levels of particulate matter in our air -- the chief culprits of which are brick kilns, construction projects, and vehicular emissions -- but experience tells a different story.
It is getting harder, not easier, to breathe each day, and there is very little hope that things will be better. Anti-pollution face masks are the new normal, and this was not the case even just a year ago.
We only seem to understand the value of health once we lose it. By the time we are running from sickness, it is already too late. Our hospitals are overburdened, and our doctors overworked. Not only is our urban population physically sick, the mental health problem, always neglected in this country, is a ticking time bomb.
But instead of just panicking or engaging in scare-mongering when a new virus shows up in town, instead of worrying specifically about dengue or chikungunya or coronavirus, can’t we focus holistically on public health? Health does not need to always be thought of in relation to sickness. It can be a state of being we aspire to, just like we aspire to economic growth.
Nairobi has fought to keep Karura Forest, because enough people there realize the inestimable benefits of clean, green, quiet places in a city. Even Seoul, an urban jungle dominated by high-rises and big tech, has an urban forest easily accessible by subway. South Koreans, when they go to Seoul Forest, respect the sanctity of the area, and keep it safe, clean, and peaceful for all.
Dhaka has nothing comparable. We have abused the city at every chance. So now, when the city makes us sick, there is no place we can go to try to heal.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.