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     Volume 4 Issue 7 | August 6, 2004 |

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Cover Story


When a bustling city goes under water, it can lead to the most unforeseen situations. On July 28 thousands of people gathered on both sides of the Sayedabad sluice gate. The people of ward no 84 wanted to open the sluice gate so that their houses, which are waist to neck-high under water, could have some respite. The people on the other side of the gate, those of ward no 86, were getting ready to resist any attempt to open the gate, because they believed that if the sluice gate was opened, their area, which was dry till then, would go under water. Clashes ensued leading to riot police firing tear gas. Eight to ten people were badly injured. Eventually, however, nature decided the fate. The pressure of the waters broke open part of the dam. The misery of living with stagnating water continues.

Dhaka looks a different city now -- at least half of it, where roads are under knee to waist-deep water. The front of every house or shop in the flood-hit areas now sport six inches to two feet tall wall to bar the quickly advancing flood water. But the terribly filthy black water has forced its way into most of the ground floors in these areas forcing people to raise their beds or cupboards by placing bricks under their feet. In many houses the poisonous, noxious water has seeped into the reserve tanks where water is stored for drinking, cooking, washing, bathing and other uses. Boats and vans have replaced rickshaws.

Flood is, to be sure, one of those natural calamities that cannot be entirely prevented. But the most disturbing question is whether we could have done something to prevent the after effects of the flood from becoming so devastating? We could, but we didn't.

This is not of course for the first time that Dhaka has been so badly affected by floods. Neither is the enormity of the humanitarian crisis we are witness to for the last few weeks in Dhaka, unprecedented. In fact, both the major floods in 1988 and 1998 did have more or less similar effects on Dhaka. But in spite of the bitter experience of the past our policy makers have remained indifferent to and lethargic about working out a long-term plan to make sure that the flood waters do not reach such levels as to paralyse normal life; so that relief is quick and efficient; and so that water-borne diseases are controlled and lives are saved. Thus, here comes another flood and yet again catches us off guard and absolutely unprepared.

Over the years, Dhaka has swelled into an extremely ill planned and unmanageable city. Dhaka's drainage and sewerage system are in a bad shape. Though the city's population has risen sharply over the years, these types of civic facilities have not been developed to meet the ever-expanding demand. The result is before us -- even a couple of hours of rains leave some parts of Dhaka several inches under water and take hours to recede. Insufficient infrastructural facilities make floods in Dhaka all the more destructive.

The general apathy of the citizenry of Dhaka is another reason for flood waters to stagnate. Selim Bhuiyan, executive engineer of Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre, says, "Our existing drainage and sewerage system, which are already inadequate, are further crippled by the callousness or ignorance of the city dwellers. They throw away all sorts of wastes in the drains. The sewerage lines also don't work being forced to carry sewage many times more than their capacity." In fact during the last major flood in 1998 the sewerage lines which were clogged by millions of polythene bags slowed down the natural flow of the floodwater, delaying the receding of the flood from Dhaka.

He then points the lack of foresight of the different government bodies responsible for developing various facilities in Dhaka. "Why do we need to widen a drain six inches this year and then another six inches after two years? Drains have to be widened on a long term basis, say for the next 20 years, taking into consideration the possible rise of population in a particular area during that projected time period," he says. "Unless of course the real intention is to make money by manipulating the public exchequer," he adds wryly. Besides, our policy makers are only concerned about raising the road so that water does not accumulate on them. What they are missing is when the water cannot stand on roads it will get into houses which have not been raised. After five years a few hours of rains will see your ground floors a few inches under water if this practice continues. What is needed is to widen the drains and keep them open so that they can be cleaned when needed, so that there isn't any clog," he argues.

The rivers around Dhaka such as Buriganga or Turag near Tongi or Balu have been shrunk by encroachment to such an extent that they now look more like hopeless canals than the mighty rivers they used to be. Taking the advantage of the government's inaction, unscrupulous businessmen and local goons, some enjoying the support of the ruling party, have established houses or business enterprises by encroaching into the river, shrinking the width of the rivers alarmingly. Again by throwing huge amounts of wastes from household garbage to tannery and other industrial wastes we have made the rivers lose their natural navigability to a great extent. Consequently the rivers can no longer contain the volume of water they were originally capable of, allowing water to flow over and drown their banks during monsoons. "We must save our rivers from the encroachers before they are choked to death; and there should be regular dredging to keep these rivers navigable to stop them from overflowing so easily," Bhuiyan emphasises.

The biggest blow as far as flood in Dhaka is concerned however, comes from the unpardonable act of filling up of all sorts of waterbodies across Dhaka. He lists some of the water bodies in Dhaka that were grabbed and eaten up by the developers in the last two decades. "There were canals in Dhaka like the <>jheel in Motijheel, a canal in Dholaikhal, another one in Narinda as well as the ones that are now Banosree and Aftabnagar near Rampura, Baridhara and Basundhara in Gulshan. Again water bodies in Badda, Baunia, Aminbazar, Meradia and Hatirjheel were also indiscriminately filled up by land robbers. After filling up everything inside Dhaka they have now set their eyes on Dhaka's suburbs Ashulia, which is also slipping away and the land near the Buriganga Bridge is being quickly devoured by these hungry developers," he says. Next time it will only be worse," he warns.

The nexus between a section of political leadership and evil developers has killed the many canals, lakes and other water bodies in Dhaka for pure mercenary purposes. He then explains how they do it: "Say, there is a canal and a particular developer who wants to develop housing there, he buys the entire land surrounding that canal and then simply devour that canal by filling it with sand. Since such water bodies are usually government property there is no one to stop them. Those responsible for guarding them, like the influential people in the government and a section of government officials, have already been bought by these developers.

And in this way Dhaka is now almost bereft of any substandard waterbodies. "It is impossible to recover those water bodies now, but we can at least guard against any more of them getting filled up if we don't want to see a fierce flood next time," he warns.

Dhaka has also been in need of protection by road-cum-dams like the DND dam near Jatrabari, Sayedabad to Malibagh Biswaroad or the circular one from Tongi to Sayedabad, without which Dhaka would have been a couple of feet more under water. Specially the proposed eastern by-pass road should be started immediately. In fact a decision in that regard was taken some five to six years back but nothing has been done yet," Bhuyian suggests. This is once again the typical attitude of our government, which, seems extremely concerned when there is a major flood and promises to do everything to resist it in future, but conveniently forgets when it comes to act upon their promises.

Again, over the years, Dhaka has been turned into a concrete jungle. There isn't any spot of soil or greenery to be found anywhere. "Soil has a natural ability to absorb water but Dhaka, wrapped up by concrete, is forcing the floodwater to stay longer," he explains.

When there is
Little Relief

Bishawjit Das

While the government is adamant that they have adequate relief to face the current flood disaster, thousands of flood-hit people in and around the capital told The Daily Star correspondents that relief is hard to come by and when it does arrive it is either inadequate or substandard. The NGOs, individuals, cultural and political organisations, are working along with the government, to provide relief. But their actions are not well co-ordinated or managed properly leading to further confusion. Our correspondents have noticed that some people are getting multiple relief in a day while many are deprived of food for two/three days.

To compound this miserable scenario drinking water has become increasingly scarce in many of the flood-hit areas in and around the capital. The situation demands an urgent supply of water purifying tablets and medicines for water-borne diseases.

On July 31hundreds of people in more than 30 villages along the Balu and Turag rivers in Dhaka and Narayanganj were found waiting in front of their inundated houses with jugs, pitchers and other containers to collect drinking water from relief workers.

"Why do they (relief workers) bring drinking water for us?" asked housewife Yasmin of the area. "Give us water purifying tablets and medicines for the diseases we are exposed to," she urged.

In Bachhila and Owajpur areas in Mohammadpur, around 3000 families had been living in under floodwaters for last 23 days. Residents of hundreds of houses had deserted the inundated area or sent their children away due to lack of relief, mostly because there just wasn't any safe water to drink.

"We have had no choice but to drink the river water since all the tube-wells in the village are under water," said Sajol, a local of Bachhila. "We do not have any supply of contamination-free water from outsides, we are mixing alum with water and drinking it for the last couple of days," he added.

Close to Dhaka, Manikganj is also in acute crisis, affecting around 10 lakh flood-hit people. Many of them are suffering from water-borne diseases. Again, inadequate relief and contaminated food and drinking water are blamed for such unnecessary suffering.

A visit to three relief distribution centres on July 28 revealed that hundreds of people were not receiving any relief.

At Jagir High School relief distribution centre in Manikganj municipality, some 500 people were anxiously waiting for more than two hours for the local lawmaker, who, after his arrival, scolded the local administration finding inadequate relief he allocated. In anger he blamed the concerned authority yelling, "Where has the relief gone? Do you think relief comes from your father's possession?"

"The relief centre provides khichuri once a day and that is what we eat here ," said primary school student Rupali, who had been waiting for relief distribution along with 200 women and children who have taken shelter at a school.

"I have been living at Aricha Belayet Hossain High School flood shelter for the last eight days along with 100 other flood-hit people, but I have received no relief till now," said Maleka Begum, secretary of Shibalaya upazila Mohila BNP unit.

A number of women including Saleha, Anwara and Momtaj of Shibalaya and Hazera, Kabila, Mariam Rizina and Lucky of Manikganj municipality wanted their names to be put on the food distributing list.

"Sir, take my name," uttered Momtaj in a feeble voice, adding, "I have been starving for the last two days."

There were also people like Nessa Banu, a 65-year-old woman from Falsatia, who complained of receiving rotten rice in the relief packet on Saturday morning.

At Barangail village, she showed The Daily Star correspondent a packet containing two kg of rice, potato and onion that were rotten. "It is better to starve than take this sort of relief," she said.

Police had intercepted several political and cultural organisations from collecting relief and fund-raising programmes in the capital, though the government had urged people of all quarters to take initiatives since the beginning of the flood.

Many non-government organisations and individuals are operating relief programmes in the flood-prone areas. Many individuals have taken up feeding programmes to the flood affected in the Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara areas.

Finding no place at government flood shelters and no food brought in by relief workers many have taken refuge in nearby houses still safe from floods, where members offer to share their home and food.

"We help ourselves," boasted 50-year-old Faiz Uddin of Balitha village. " A flood-hit family is in my house along with their belongings and they will stay as long as my house is not inundated." He went on, "We share our food with them at this time of gajab (deluge ) and I believe we can overcome the problem this way."

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