Our social media, print as well as the electronic media have all been awash over the last three weeks with coverage, including photographs, displaying the utter helplessness of the 17 million Dhaka inhabitants as they face water-logging throughout the capital. The consequences have been serious to say the least.
There has been disruption in city life in all spheres-- education, healthcare, transportation as well as within the paradigm of business. Rainfall has left most of the capital roads waterlogged with long tail-backs at cross roads. Knee-high or chest-high water levels on some of the busiest streets, including lanes and by-lanes have paralysed commuters, stranded for hours in different localities of the city-- Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Lalmatia, Dhanmondi, Karwan Bazar, Kakrail, Shantinagar, Moghbazar, Mouchak, Malibagh, Rampura and Badda. Rickshaws have been sometimes available as they have blindly pedaled through the murky waters, some overturning with passengers due to hidden potholes.
Dhaka for all practical purposes has become a trap unless you have been fortunate to live on a street or in an area not inundated because of poor drainage system. Such a situation has apparently been true in many other parts of the country including the second largest city-Chittagong.
As expected there have been several responses from urban architects as well as the two elected Mayors of North and South Dhaka City Corporations. There have also been explanations from different authorities (including WASA) responsible for keeping the water, sanitation and drainage systems running within the capital and its surrounding areas.
The common denominators that have emerged from their response relate mainly to the following-
(a) water-logging is one of the after-effects of unplanned urbanisation, and unless checked and corrected soonest, the problem will deteriorate at a faster pace-- mostly so because of geometrical growth in the capital's population due to migration of the rural youth population to the urban areas in search of a better livelihood;
(b) lack of coordination among the authorities responsible for maintenance of the drainage systems. This includes 14 government agencies including the two Dhaka City Corporations and Dhaka WASA- who are responsible for the upkeep of the city's drainage system. Nevertheless, the DSCC is apparently cleaning the surface drains as an immediate measure to ease water-logging. Nobody, however, appears to know the exact state of storm drainage facilities in the capital. Dhaka WASA and the City Corporations pass the buck between each other.;
(c) there is no storm drainage system in 78 per cent of the 360 sq.km Dhaka WASA area, not to speak of greater Dhaka which covers 1,528 sq.km;
(d) available surface drains measuring nearly 1,500 km are mostly clogged with solid waste or with washed-in debris, particularly plastic products which do not disintegrate. Lack of civic responsibility in this regard has become a major factor. It has been found that this situation has deteriorated so much that sometimes even high-tech heavy machineries prove ineffectual in clearing the congestions. Manual clearances, sometimes hazardous, then need to be undertaken as have been exemplified in the case of Panthopath;
(e) drainage systems are mostly cleared only once a year, and that too if the area happens to be near main thoroughfares;
(f) waterways and canals that are supposed to flush out excess water through rainfall are being stamped out by illegal filling up by land grabbers. It would be interesting to note here that according to available statistics, in 1978, in and around Dhaka city, there was about 2,952 hectares of water bodies, about 13,528 hectares of low-lying land and about 2,900 hectares of canals. This by 2014 had come down to 1,935 hectares, 6,198 hectares and 1,002 hectares respectively. That indicates the gravity of the situation. It may be recalled that the WASA authorities have installed some large diameter storm-water drains between 2012-2014 in some parts of Gulshan, Dhanmondi, Mirpur Darussalam and Uttara areas, but this was done in an isolated and fragmented manner. Consequently, the drainage systems do not function meaningfully.
Media has also reported that the relevant authorities tried to facilitate drainage through open canals (totaling about 60 km). However, they are not functioning in the expected manner as storm-water carriers, partially because of waste dumping that has not only reduced their depth but also because of indiscriminate encroachments. The Prime Minister in this context has very correctly pointed out that all of us including business institutions need to refrain from contravening environmental regulations and undertake illegal initiatives that might endanger drainage of excess water, particularly during the rainy season; and
(g) agencies responsible for maintaining drainage do not always have the requisite trained personnel or have the machinery required for this purpose at their disposal. In addition, water drainage experts have revealed that nearly a total of 10 km separate stretches in different canals have been turned into box culverts, but they too, most of the time remain clogged with waste. It is apparently the duty of WASA and the two City Corporations to keep them free for water movement, but there is only mutual recrimination between them in this regard.
This difficulty would be greatly overcome with the constitution of one single authority which could be made responsible for the entire drainage aspect. They could also then take necessary steps for increasing the frequency of drain cleanings and transporting the dirty silt for deposit in a designated area outside the capital, keeping in mind that such action does not endanger available surface water supply.
Drainage experts generally agree that one of the important steps that need to be undertaken by the government is the recovery of designated flood plains and canals. One needs to understand that this is a critical step. If we continue to lose dedicated flood flow zones and water retention areas to land grabbers and real estate developers, the situation can only worsen. Such unplanned activity will also raise the threat level for planned urban development.
The Mayor of Dhaka City North Corporation has indicated that he would take up a scheme to improve drainage in Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara areas. He also aims to undertake another important task. Quite correctly he has identified that after the passing of the Monsoon season and the persistent inundation of streets due to water-logging, attention has to be given to the repair and re-surfacing of almost all the roads in his jurisdiction.
This approach will apparently also apply in the case of the area designated as Dhaka South City Corporation. The situation in Narinda, Wari, Sutrapur, Chowk Bazar, Banglabazar areas leave a lot to be done. In realistic terms, this effort on the part of the two City Corporations will require coordination with several of our ministries which are involved in more ways than one in maintaining communication and roads within the capital. It will also require extra funding for the stakeholders. We will have only four to five months of dry, winter weather before the season starts changing again. Consequently the window of opportunity has to be availed of with greater seriousness.
At this point one also needs to re-iterate that there also needs to be a more functional approach on the part of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB). They are also associated with the drainage process and need to be more pro-active.
Environmental experts have also drawn attention to the fact that responsible authorities need to utilise heavy pumps to pump out additional rain water inflow. Some of that has been witnessed this time in the case of Hatir Jheel. We apparently have less than enough permanent water pumping stations for WASA at the moment for the capital. They are located in Kallyanpur, Rampura, Kamlapur and the Dholaikhal areas. The BWDB also has one pumping station at Goranchar Bari.
There have been complaints for some time about the need to install more pumping stations and increasing pumping capacity. Some have also pointed out the need for enhancing the volume of discharge capacity. Our ministries for LGRD and for Water Resources need to do this on a priority basis. If necessary, we should seek external multilateral financial assistance.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.