The Financial Express

Visualising Dhaka as 'Venice of South Asia'

Visualising Dhaka as 'Venice of South Asia'

The very mention of rivers in Bangladesh beside cities and towns brings to mind a common view. Most of them are in their death throes, with their streams choked by mindless pollutions, especially dumping of wastes. The country's rivers flowing by sprawling urban areas stand for veritably viscous streams of filth, mostly man-made. The scenario becomes clear if one compares the Buriganga beside Dhaka, the portions of Karnafuli beside Chattogram with the Thames or the Seine. Hundreds and thousands of words have been written in the recent times on pollution of rivers in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The topic that has recurred in these studies and papers is the imperative of saving these rivers. But the human-excavated or natural canals also do not lag behind.

There is a strange aspect to this episode. In spite of being silent victims of wholesale pollution, these rivers at some seasonal interludes appear with their pristine beauty. During the rain-dominant monsoon, the otherwise dreary looks of the Bangladeshi rivers transform into their original pristine views. For the highly polluted rivers like the Buriganga, this change should aptly be defined as a metamorphosis. Amid these widespread water pollutions, a few of the country's rivers stand out as pure comfort to the eyes and mind. In spite of the faint start of the encroachment on the mighty Meghna, the river still presents fascinating views at a lot of points. The large rivers --- the Padma, the Jamuna and the Brahmaputra, have long been shorn of their magnificent beauty. Their water-level has fallen alarmingly, with the streams slowing down.

Amid these dreary spectacles, the Meghna flows with its majestic quiet in different parts of the country. To many, this look of the Meghna appears to be confusing. It's because almost all the rivers and canals of the country used to offer a similar refreshing look hundred years ago. But man's greed for river banks and fits of irrationality eventually stood in the way of their normal courses. But still, the rivers couldn't be obliterated from the landscape, or waterscape, of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, their already marginalised sisters have entered the process of being wiped out from Bangladesh.

Locally known as 'khaals', these water channels are excavated by farmers mainly for irrigation. They're an integral part of agriculture in the dry regions of the country. For a 'khaal' or canal to remain filled with water, it has to be connected to a nearby river. Having a relatively narrow width and shallow water-depth, the canals also burst at their seams during monsoon. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous canals in Bangladesh have fallen on bad times. The land-grabbers have filled many of them with earth to turn the canals into patches of croplands. Lots of today's youths hear from the elderly about one or another canal which once flowed along their village fringes. Some of these once-water-filled man-made channels now lie dried up and left to be filled with wild plants and shrubbery.

The rural canals were once necessitated by the demand for water needed in agricultural activities. With the start of the large-scale use of diesel-run pumps, the canals fell into disuse. And most of them slowly merged with adjacent agro-plots. Dhaka, the country's capital, took pride in its numerous canals during the Mughal and British periods. Those canals, dug for flushing out stagnant rain and flood water from Dhaka were found in every part of the city. The number those functional canals once stood at near 30. Upon becoming victims of encroachment by a section of the city authorities and influential people, half of them have vanished in the following decades. Their number coming to mere 15/14, these derelict canals remained in place as living emblems of indifference towards Dhaka's liveability on the part of the relevant authorities and the general people.

Many tourism enthusiasts think that proper maintenance of Dhaka's scientifically planned canals would have made the city one of those which have large networks of canals, and could attract tourists with their unique waterway networks. The now chronically waterlogged Dhaka during the rains wouldn't have to deteriorate to its current plight with its canals in full operation.

At present there are at least 10 canal-based cities across the world. Their locations range from western and northern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, Micronesia to mainland China. The very concept of the canal-based cities began with the Italian city of Venice. For centuries in a row, the canals and gondolas of the outwardly floating Venice have drawn people from all parts of the world. In reality, the medieval city of Venice is not a floating one. The whole city comprises 118 small islands separated by serpentine canals. Instead of road transports, the gondola boats once helped the island residents remain connected. Later, tourists began comprising a large segment of the total gondola passengers. Like the Italian city, the Netherlands capital Amsterdam has more than 100 canals, now recognised as world heritage sites.

Few are aware of the fact that Venice is not the only canal-based tourist city in the world. Apart from the Italian city, romantically attached to newly married couples travelling on gondolas to the accompaniment of songs by gondola boatmen, there are Stolkholm, Alappuzha, Bruges and Amsterdam. Canals flowing through these cities have distinguished them. Except the seaside city of Alappuzha in South India's Kerala, Suzhou in China, Vietnam's Hoi and the canal market in Bangkok, canal-cities dot many parts of Europe. The Bruges canals in Belgium and those in Amsterdam have been recognised as 'heritage sites' owing to their age and the capacity to draw tourists from all over the world. The southern Indian Alappuzha houseboats cruising along the tranquil, coconut tree lined waterways emerge as the most distinctive among all the spectacles. Tourists from all over the sub-continent and different parts of the globe keep thronging the ferry points of the sleek boats round the year. Apart from the tourist-dominant canals, there are others famous for the exclusively waterway communication in a canal-based city like Suzhou in China. Called the Venice of China, Suzhou was founded in 5th century BC. Located in the lower Yangtze River area, the 1,776 km Grand Canal, also known as an artificial river, has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. Some of the globally reputed canal-cities are famous for their boat based commercial activities. The Bangkok Klongs (canals) and Vietnam's Hoi An (canal commerce) have no parallels in the world.

Ever since civilisations have started dawning with planned cities in different regions, excavation of canals was recognised as an imperative. Those were meant for helping the cities remain free of water logging. Many cities had natural canals, and were built amid them sourcing from nearby rivers. Against this backdrop, the now-lost canals flowing within Dhaka could be viewed as a glorious phase of Dhaka. Like the enlightened cities have seen through the ages, this 400-year-old city could also bask in the glory of flourishing amid its well preserved large and small canals. With over a dozen water-filled canals linked to the Buriganga, and the other rivers around the city, people cruising through them leisurely, Dhaka could have called itself the 'Venice of South Asia' --- and quite rightfully at that.

There were no reasons for Dhaka to dread the future urban developments. A speeding elevated metro rail and the languid movement of a boat on a canal not too far would have complemented each other. Canals could have been perfect landmarks for Dhaka. And the city could also deserve to be called a 'Venice' as the Italian tourist venue has long become a metonymy for cities with well preserved canals.

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