By Van Nguyen, Deputy Resident Representative of United Nations Development Programme in Bangladesh.


Today is June 5, the day we observe World Environmental Day. I find myself reminiscing Dr A.K.M.  Rafique Ahammed ( Ex-Director General, Department of Environment )-- what would he have done to further the environmental cause?

It is a sad reality that we are celebrating the day without Dr Rafique, a man who dedicated his life to caring for the land, the water, the forest, and all living beings.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, I would wake up every morning, and check the news first thing. Every night before bed, I watched the live broadcast by World Health Organisation. I would mourn for the increasing number of lives lost to the deadly disease. Then, I decided to spare myself from such devastating news. After all, I had to cope. If that meant burying my head in the sand like an ostrich, then that was it. No news was good news, and I had to move on.

But avoidance does not stop the news from taking its course. On a Saturday morning in April of this year, my colleague Khurshid sent me a message with the news of Dr Rafique’s passing. I could not believe what I was reading, and I broke into tears.

I thought of my first time meeting him, at an event organised at the Department of Environment. That event was also on a weekend.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge he possessed as he spoke to us. Truth be told, I was a bit intimidated. There I was, a newcomer to Bangladesh, sitting next to a legend in the field of environmentalism, spoke about the need to go beyond adaptation and focus more on mitigation -- at an event where our people were discussing the National Adaptation Plan.

After Dr Rafique passed away on April 10, 2021, many of my colleagues said his untimely departure left a big vacuum, and his presence had touched many lives. I had no doubt about that because he had left an impact on my life as well, especially during a trip we took together to Tanguar Haor.

When I had first learned about the possibility of that trip, I said yes for multiple reasons. I was curious to see what exactly it is that’s called a “haor”. Then there’s my not-so-hidden personal agenda to visit all districts of Bangladesh, and I wanted to get to know and learn from environment and climate change experts. The only thing I did not anticipate is the lasting effect that trip, and my travelling companion Dr Rafique Ahammed would have left on me.

At every point during our travels, Dr Rafique made sure all our food, accommodation and transport needs were well taken care of. The day we visited the haor was so much fun. We could tell what a great mood the environmentalist was in -- I noticed him singing, Tagore songs I was told.

He was taking in the beauty and tranquillity of the haor during the boat ride, observing smiling children on the boat next to us while we were surrounded only by water in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. I remember him having an orange and carefully keeping the peel to throw it out later, when the rest of us had thrown the peel into the haor thinking we were feeding the fish!

While breathing in the fresh and clean air of the haor Dr Rafique was dreaming that one day Dhaka will have clean air too. I later learned that during his last few months, he was taking drastic actions against air pollution.  

It goes without saying that bonds develop between people when conversations go beyond work, and into the things that matter most to us -- family, children, passion, and dreams. Dr Rafique spoke fondly of his wife, saying they met while studying in the same zoology faculty. He spoke proudly of his two sons. He told us about his beautiful birthplace in Chittagong and was happy to hear that I had been to the district.

But he rarely spoke about himself or his illustrious career. I learned from my colleagues of his exceptional combination of academic knowledge and professional experience. He was an expert on environmental and climate change issues, through both education and practice. I believe this is why he did not shy away from sharing his views in different forums as well as in more intimate settings.

Dr Rafique was serving the country as a civil servant both at home and abroad. He was somebody who had both panoramic and granular perspectives, thanks to his working experience in both grassroots and top leadership levels. When he spoke, people listened, and he was able to create a conducive environment where diverse views could be discussed and shared in the most collegial and respectful manner.

My team was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him and be mentored by him. They view him as a role model of honesty and talent. They told me how much Dr Rafique cared for them, how he encouraged them to always think about people and nature. He emphasised on the “servant” part of civil servant and discouraged them from thinking of themselves otherwise.  

When we discussed the brown economy, the environmental cost of development, green growth, environmental diplomacy, sustainable production and consumption, his views were very clear. He was keen to find solutions that can help the country ensure environmental sustainability without compromising its aspiration for growth.

We had one thing in common -- we both hated plastic. We spoke about ways to raise awareness among young people and make them agents of change to encourage sustainable consumption behaviours. Dr Rafique had done the best in his capacity and taken a strong initiative to phase out plastic. He established a dedicated waste and chemical management wing at Department of Environment (DoE). With his exemplary leadership, the DoE has strengthened the enforcement and at the same time, they are developing a business model that will promote sustainable management of plastic and hazardous chemicals. I hope his legacy continues.

During our visit to Tanguar Haor, he was suggesting the locals to establish a school there for children and he promised to mobilise funds using his personal networks. The locals were asking for a mosque instead, and he said to them, “Why not build something with a dual purpose? A mosque and classroom on other floors.”

I wish he could complete that undertaking.

UNDP Bangladesh and DoE have been privileged to have a trusted partnership over the years. Dr Rafique has left us, but we promise to carry forward his dreams and cause of environmental sustainability.

Please join me in celebrating his life and legacy. Tagore was his favourite, and what better way to sum up who he was than with the beautiful words of the legendary poet --

I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service

I acted and behold, service was joy.

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