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Waterlogging: A regressive phenomenon

Shihab Sarkar | Published: July 18, 2019 21:09:07


View of Loharpul (suspension bridge) over Dolai Khal at Sutrapur, Dhaka (pic. Hoffman in 1880). —Photo courtesy: DhakaDailyPhoto.blogspot.com via the Internet

It may not sound surprising if people in the near future begin calling Dhaka a metonymy for all kinds of waterlogging. Waterlogging and the accompanying sufferings might one day come to be known as 'Dhaka syndrome'. The pitiable situation may also include the lackadaisical performance of the authorities concerned in working out a solution to the problem. Or else how a responsible segment of the administration can renege on its 2017 promise that waterlogging will disappear from Dhaka from the next year. The pledge came after almost the whole city's low-lying areas went under water on a monsoon day in that year. The problem did not go the next year. As if it were a mockery of the administrative pledges, the scenes of submerged roads spread to newer areas, which had long been considered completely waterlogging-proof. In short, the Dhaka residents' sufferings mostly remained in place. The debilitating waterlogging menace has made its assaults on Dhaka this year too. A large part of the swathes hit by waterlogging in the previous and current years is relatively higher than the city's other areas. As they were well developed with an effective drainage, rain water could not remain stagnant there for long in the past. It was scattered puddles which would hamper movement in these areas for just a few hours. Compared to these parts of the capital, the low-lying areas in many districts of the city would slip into the perennially water-logged neighbourhoods after a prolonged downpour. Many such areas would remain under stagnant rain water even for weeks.

The failure to take necessary waterlogging removal steps in the capital was caused apparently by the inability of the authorities to release the rain water into the nearby canals. In the past, Dhaka would take pride in its more than 50 canals. But where are they now? They do exist in Dhaka, but with the drop in their number to 26 --- most of them encroached on and filled with municipal and other waste and garbage. Lately, the government has taken massive initiatives to renovate and restore them. The projects are said to have hit snags.

Most of these proverbially famous water-filled Dhaka canals have long vanished. The task of keeping Dhaka free of waterlogging lies in most part with Dhaka Water Supply & Sewerage Authority (DWASA). It works in cooperation with the Dhaka South and North City Corporations, the capital development authority (RAJUK), Bangladesh Water Development Board and a few related entities. With a view to keeping the capital free of waterlogging, Dhaka WASA received a hefty fund from the Ministry of Local Government last year. By spending a tranche of this fund, WASA executed some vital works like re-excavation and cleaning of a dozen long-lost canals. They also cleaned box-culverts and clogged drains. But before they could complete their project, monsoon set in. Within a year most of the renovated canals and box-culverts reverted to their earlier dysfunctional state. The agency has sought another large fund also this year from the ministry concerned for the jobs that remained half-done last year. With the season of monsoon already underway, many doubt the fruitful use of the fund in 2019.

The monsoon waterlogging is a multi-pronged problem for Dhaka. Though caused by clogged drainage and canals grabbed by various specially blessed syndicates, in the last three to four decades it got entangled with scores of Dhaka's urban maladies. They include difficulty moving around the city, drop in school attendance and, dreadfully, the outbreak of vector borne diseases like dengue, chikungunya etc.   In a sense, the waterlogging malady plays a number of direct and indirect roles in the emergence of a veritably unlivable condition of the city during rains. The ordeals of commuters know no bound. In many ways, the urban scourge of waterlogging has brought Dhaka to the point of an extreme debilitation. Dhaka in the recent years appears to have been afflicted with dozens of erratic behaviours related to the start and exit of seasons. Just a decade ago, the rainy months of Asharh and Sravan continued to be bone dry year after year. Unless pointed out, many would pass the months off as the ones in scorching summer. Then all of a sudden in an unexpectedly auspicious year, the advent of the two-month monsoon began startlingly, that too on time. The rains also ended without spilling over into the next season of autumn. But the elements of an erratic pattern began characterising the seasonal cycle of monsoon. In the last few years, the arrival of monsoon was seen as being so timely that rains would start from April, officially the season of summer, and Chaitra-Baishakh in Bangla calendar. And as feared, with the downpour arrived the ordeal of waterlogging.

Few disruptive natural phenomena cause as much misery to Dhaka as waterlogging during monsoon.  In years, the season lasts for three to four months. Along with it, the menace of waterlogging, especially in the low-lying areas, brings scores of woes to the city residents. It was during the rainy season nearly two decades ago when the hitherto unheard-of scourge of stagnant rain water got hold of the Dhaka residents.

The day-and-night torrential rain in a row with short intervals last week may have reminded many of the much-dreaded waterlogging in the capital. The Dhaka residents did not have to wait longer. It happened as an inevitable phenomenon --- with the drainage mostly malfunctioning and the re-excavation of some major old-time canals stopping half way through. Post-rain submersion of roads and localities is now a normal occurrence in the densely populated city. Amazingly, waterlogging was an alien urban factor in Dhaka in the pre-independence times. In the 1950s and the 1960s, due to its being a provincial city, Dhaka could keep itself free of many urban hazards. The city was then much less populated than today. But despite its being deficient in many amenities, its basic infrastructure would function properly. All this contributed to keeping its later scourges like waterlogging at bay.

These days even a brief spell of shower results in many city roads going down under knee- to waist-deep rain water. The fact that faulty and improvised planning and unbridled population rise can invite scores of urban ills for a fast-spreading city brings Dhaka's case to the fore. It needs no experts' observation to blame the overfilled storm sewerage lines, choked box culverts --- and the complete disappearance of Dhaka's cross-city canals for the city's waterlogging. The canals were constructed nearly 200 years ago by the British city administrators in order to facilitate release of rain water into the four rivers. These rivers including the Buriganga and the Turag surrounded the city. The neighbouring West Bengal capital of Kolkata has long been free of stagnant water. Encroaching on the canals and finally filling them to grab the newly emerged land has completely been an atrocious idea in that mega city. On the contrary, this was what had happened to the famous canals of Dhaka. Following the filling-up of Dolai Khal, the largest canal in Dhaka, all the bigger and small canals began being filled up. To speak pithily, few developed cities in the world are prepared to fall victim to waterlogging. Perhaps the policymakers know it well that this scourge finally emerges as an irritant to the progress of forward-looking cities, as well as a nation. We have yet to comprehend this truth by keeping things in perspective.

Shihabskr@ymail.com

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