Bangladesh's infrastructure is in a catastrophic state. Projects financed by the Asian Development Bank seek to change that. Bettina Stehkämper examined a new bridge that's made the lives of 200,000 people easier.
From Jessore in southwestern Bangladesh, we travel 30 kilometers further to Narikelbari. The air-conditioning in the bus is set to only slightly above freezing. Outside, the traffic consists of unholy chaos. Huge potholes. Adventurous rickshaw drivers transporting four meter-long tree trunks. A tangle of overflowing buses, with passengers hanging onto the roofs. Children darting through the labyrinth of vehicles. A cacophony of honks and beeps, guiding a choreography incomprehensible to anyone but the local drivers.
After an hour and a half of driving in a serpentine line, we come to a stop. A stage has been constructed in the middle of the street, draped in huge, colorful cloths, meant to protect against the blazing sun. Hundreds of people in their best clothes line the streets or sit on the stage.
At first we think we’ve arrived at a wedding. But then we discover the fuss is actually all about us - a small delegation of German journalists, representatives of the German state-owned development bank, KfW, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The banks are responsible for financing the construction of a 90-meter bridge over the Chitra River. For anyone coming from a country where reactions to road construction range from opposition to annoyance, and even indifference, the celebratory mood is not immediately understandable.
90 meters of concrete can mean the world
Around 150,000 residents live on both sides of the river, among them 15-year-old Rume, who immediately befriends our group. "I want to be a doctor," she says. "I’m in the tenth grade."
But she says learning is difficult. She has to cross the river everyday, and is often late. "There’s mud and water everywhere. Our books and clothes get wet."
And the monsoon season makes her commute even harder. She has to cross a rickety walkway battered by torrential rain, to take a ramshackle boat to school. The new bridge means she can make it to school without any problems all year long.
A safer rainy season
The lives of farmers and traders are also set to change. In addition to the bridge, the ADB and KfW have also fixed streets and the local market square.
As a result, hundreds of day laborers have had work since 2014. Now they can transport their wares across the river and keep them dry until they’re sold at the market stands, even during the six-to-nine-month rainy season.
Part of the market stands are reserved for women, a condition the KfW pushed forward especially strongly. Mukti Sikder, 25, is a business owner. She carefully arranges dresses and flip-flops around her stand.
"The businesses created through the bridge are good for us," she says. "I can now be financially independent. It’ll only get better from now on."
Flood protection as a condition for development
Bangladesh has half of Germany’s land surface area, but double the population, at 160 million people. Countless rivers snake through the country, which lies only slightly above sea level. The people are hardly protected against flooding - and against the subsequent loss of land and home.
"Without flood protection, the tide washes away plants, and markets and residential areas are often submerged under water," says Elma Morsheda. She’s in charge of flood protection in the 1.6 million-strong city of Khulna. The river Bhairab, which passes through Khulna, rises six meters higher in the rainy season.
"The people lose their income and livelihoods," she says.
But ADB and KfW have invested in fixing the dikes, helping around 200,000 now able to profit from better coastal protection and from the streets constructed well above sea level. Many areas of Bangladesh, especially rural ones, can only dream of such development.
Days later, we’re back in Berlin. The taxi driver warns us of a major traffic jam along the highway, saying we might need an extra five minutes. Never have I been able to take a traffic warning as lightly as in that moment.