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     Volume 4 Issue 14 | September 24, 2004 |

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Cover Story

When Dhaka Floundered

Shamim Ahsan

Only a couple of weeks since Dhakaites recovered from a prolonged flood, another rain-borne flood hit Dhaka on September 13. The three-day long heavy shower caused serious waterlogging in the city, yet again. For three days, life came to a virtual standstill. People were forced into self-imprisonment, business came to a halt, and acute crisis of drinking water made life unbearable. Waterlogging, once thought to be a problem only for a few low-lying areas in Dhaka, has suddenly threatened to become a regular event in the rainy season. Could this waterlogging have been avoided? What can we do to protect Dhaka from getting waterlogged in the future?

Anwar Hossain, a teacher at a private university, was surprised as he stood at the main gate of his residence in Gopibagh on the morning of September 13. The entire alley in front of his house was under ankle-high water. It had been raining since the previous day but he never thought it could drown the road. There weren't any rickshaws in sight. He folded the ends of his trousers, took his shoes in his hand and waded through the waters. His surprise increased when he saw that the main road was also drowned. It took him 15 minutes before he could get hold of a rickshaw. The rickshaw puller demanded Tk 20, three times higher than the usual fare, but he didn't have any option.

The heavy downpour continued throughout the day and by the afternoon most of the low lying areas in Dhaka were under water. Since the day coincided with Shab-e-meraj, a general holiday for the educational institutions, school-going children and their parents were saved. But, thousands of people returning home from their workplace found themselves stranded. There weren't any buses or cabs or baby taxis -- all sorts of motor vehicles had fled the streets, because, the engines could stop functioning if they came into contact with water. The only modes of transport that could be seen were rickshaws.

But even the number of rickshaws was negligible. In Motijheel commercial area hundreds of homebound people could be seen standing in knee-deep water. Rickshaw-pullers, suddenly discovering that the demand was many times higher than the supply, were asking for inflated fares. Many chose to walk home, but women and those who lived in far off places, were forced to comply with the rickshaw-puller's demands. Farzana Karim, who works at Mercantile Bank in Motijheel branch, had to pay Tk. 140 to go to Hatirpool from Motijheel.

Commuting was not the only trouble though. When Anwar returned home at around 7 pm, he could not believe his eyes. The rapidly advancing water was only a few inches away from their reserve tank. "Water didn't come this far even during the flood," he exclaims. He called a carpenter and quickly got a one-foot wall installed surrounding the reserve tank.

Everybody wasn't as alert as Anwar. Rainwater mixed with sewage water coming out from the manholes intruded upon a large number of reserve tanks in Old Dhaka. "We had to come all the way from Gandaria to Motijheel to buy from WASA. My younger brother and I hired a van, filled up two huge drums and brought them home. It took us hours as our van had to advance avoiding potholes and drains hiding under the cover of water," he says.

Many were forced to move to their relatives' homes. "It didn't help much though. My office is in Motijheel, so I had to come all the way from Dhanmondi to Motijheel," says Shariful Hasan, who, along with his family members had to move from Hatkhola to Dhanmondi to stay with relatives. "We couldn't sleep at night thinking our home, which we had left absolutely empty, could be looted," Hasan adds.

There were even more serious problems. Twenty-five water pumps for raising water had gone under water causing major disruptions in the water supply. Most of WASA's 45 pumps for clearing out logged water from the city were found out of order when they were needed the most. The strong wind accompanying heavy rains tore apart many electricity lines disrupting power supply in many areas. Many of the transformers had blownup. As water crept into the electricity sub-station inside the Secretariat, there wasn't any power for almost the entire day of September 13. An electricity tower of the Hasnabad-Kallyanpur 132 KV transmission line at Keraniganj collapsed on the 13th resulting in the power disruption in Mirpur, Kallyanpur, Kazipara, Shewrapara, Agargaon, Jhikatola, Shyamoli and Adabor areas.

Commuters who usually take the VIP road were in for a shock. Most of it was completely flooded, including the part of the road outside the PM's office. All the traffic had to be redirected through Tejgaon, causing horrendous jams. Many roads of Gulshan became inaccessible. Residents of Basundhara and Gulshan reported having to deal with poisonous snakes creeping into the compounds from the overflowing water-bodies.

Dhaka is increasingly becoming a soft target of all sorts of natural calamity. As the recent rain-borne flood literally paralysed Dhaka for three days, the city dwellers sat helpless. Various government agencies were of little help and preferred to wait for Nature to show mercy on the city. But was there nothing we could have done to prevent this latest disaster? Why does a mega-city like Dhaka get waterlogged in the first place?

For one thing, Dhaka simply doesn't have a proper drainage and sewerage infrastructure. The city, moreover, is expanding both horizontally and vertically at an uncontrollable pace, along with its population. In comparison, the drainage and sewerage facilities have grown little over the years. WASA has 8 kilometres of box culvert, 225 kilometres of storm sewer line (large round underground drains) and 1100 kilometres of surface drain, which covers only 38 percent of the city areas.

The existing facilities cannot operate at full capacity because of ill maintenance. DCC and WASA, both government bodies supposedly responsible for protecting Dhaka from waterlogging, are busy blaming each other for the crisis. According to DCC, the principal responsibility of solving the waterlogging rests on WASA. Clearing the surface drain is DCC's duty while WASA deals with underground drains. Since WASA has not been clearing the underground drains for a long time water through these clogged drains cannot pass at its normal pace. Dhaka WASA has shifted the blame on the record breaking rains in 50 years. They however, stated that DCC was responsible for not clearing the surface drains properly, which, WASA officials believes, further worsened the situation. The feuding between the two illustrates what is missing -- co-operation among the various service providing agencies.

While DCC and WASA are guilty of negligence and inefficiency, a lack of civic sense among a large section of city dwellers also contributes to exacerbating the situation. All sorts of solid wastes gathered from households, restaurants and other establishments are often thrown into the drains blocking the flow of wastewaters. Again those with houses just beside the road often build shops in such a way that the drain gets covered up.

The primary culprit is the messy and inadequate drainage system. A proper drainage system does not mean a few sewerage lines and drains only; it means building up a network that interconnects drains and sewerage lines with the natural water-bodies such as ponds, lakes and canals. Unfortunately, Dhaka, which once used to be dotted with some two dozen ponds, canals and lakes, has been bereft of those water-bodies by the city's unplanned, wholesale urbanisation in the last two decades. Numerous high rise buildings have suddenly sprung up all over the city, all sorts of natural water reservoirs both inside Dhaka and on its suburbs have been quickly filled up by developers. The lakes, once large and healthy, have shrunk and grown sickly by indiscriminate encroachment of the land grabbers. The consequence of such indiscriminate construction is right before our eyes. A few hours of rain inundate many of the city streets and during floods the entire low-lying areas of Dhaka go under water for days on end. If water bodies had still been around they could have easily contained the extra volume of water that might have invaded the city because of floods or excessive rains.

Selim Bhuiyan, Chief Engineer, Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre, lists some of the natural water reservoirs that have vanished from Dhaka's map and the areas which have been suffering from waterlogging as a consequence of that usurpation. The encroachment on Katasur canal causes water logging in Rayerbazar and Mohammadpur areas. Filling up Ramchandrapur canal is responsible for waterlogging in Islambagh, Nawabgonj and Hazaribagh. A more than 30 metre wide open canal in the southern part of Dhaka, Dholai Khal, was filled up and a 2.5 metre by 2.5 metre box culvert was installed in its place. Narrowing the canal has led to water-logging in BUET, Bakhsibazar, Hosnidalan, Nimtali, Nazimuddin Road, Bangshal, Aga Sadek Road, Gandaria, Postogola, and Faridabad areas. Encroachment on Segunbagicha Khal at Maniknagar and Manda causes waterlogging in Shantinagar, Inner Circular and Middle Circular Roads, Arambagh, Fakirapul, Gulisthan Zero Point, Motijheel, Dilkusha and Saidabad areas.

Shrinking of the Jirani Khal and choking up of the Shajahanpurt Khal are responsible for waterlogging in Malibagh, Mouchak and Shantibagh areas. Infringement on Shahjadpur Khal prevents flushing out of rainwater and wastewater from Kuril, Pragati Sarani and adjacent areas. Filling up a large portion of Begunbari Khal has resulted in waterlogging in Tejgaon, Gulshan 1 and Mohakhali areas. Encroachment on Mohakhali Khal is causing water logging in Nakhalpara, Arjatpara, Rasulbagh and Shahinbagh. The Kalyanpur pump regulating pond of the water supply agency has been filled up, causing waterlogging in Taltala, Agargaon, Kazipara, Shewrapara, Barabagh, Mirpur Section 1 and adjacent areas. Encroachment on Ibrahimpur Khal and filling up of Diabari Khal by the developers are responsible for creating water logging in Uttara and Banani.

And all this has been happening right under the nose of RAJUK (Rajdhani Unnayan Katripakkha), the government agency entrusted with the job of giving approval of any sort of buildings in Dhaka. Now, why RAJUK has been approving the housing projects by filling up wetlands is no mystery. "Sometimes developers make two plans, one for getting the approval of RAJUK and another one, which they originally implement," Bhuiyan says. RAJUK, which is supposed to monitor if the approved plan is being followed, is either neglecting their job, or just keeping their eyes shut for reasons known to all. "Most surprisingly, besides private developers, RAJUK itself is filling up wetlands and the peripheral low lying areas," reveals ANH Akhtar Hossain, Managing Director, WASA.

Dhaka has also grown into a concrete jungle, without very little greenery. There is hardly any soil left in the city. So when there is water either because of floods or heavy showers, it cannot seep into the ground. Consequently, rain water or floodwater takes longer to recede. This is also another reason why the water level in Dhaka is going further down.

Bhuiyan mentions another reason that makes the waterlogging situation still worse. There is a tendency to raise the city streets to save them from getting water logged. "What they don't seem to understand is, if water cannot stay on the streets it will then get into the houses more quickly than before," he explains. There has to be an outlet to clear away the water and for that drains have to be made spacious and they have to be kept clean, he points out.

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