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A catastrophe not too far away

The low land spotted with more than 250 shanties looks like a sinking village. Relentless downpour over the recent weeks has left telltale signs on the Barkat Mian slum, located near the Beribandh (embankment). At the entrance, pieces of wood and wooden benches have been stacked to create an elevated platform in the waterlogged area. ‘The rain has washed away everything — food, clothes and most of the shanties,’ says Rokeya Begum. Last week, for three days, Rokeya spent the night on a bench with her three children.

Even though the rain has eased up and the water level started to decline, the pungent smell of garbage and sewage mixed with the rainwater has made life miserable, especially for children. There has already been an outbreak of fever and diarrhoea. ‘On the one hand there is no let-up in the downpour and on the other the water pump seems to have broken down,’ complained Abu Barkat.

Barkat’s shanty gave in to heavy rain last week. He has been trying ever since to get some money to build another shanty for himself and his five children. ‘The problem is the water takes long to go down because there is nowhere that the water can go. Even on the roads, just three hours of rain leads to heavy water-logging,’ he says.

Last week’s downpour virtually forced life in Dhaka into a grinding halt. Vehicles of all shapes and kind remained stranded in waterlogged roads for hours on end. Commuters had to wade through knee-to-waist-deep water. And, of course, the slums bore the brunt of it, virtually submerged in rainwater hours after the rain had stopped. The city-dwellers now continue to be threatened by yet another rainfall that will result in dreadful water-logging and paralyse city life.

According to experts, there is nothing abnormal about this year’s heavy rainfall. ‘There is nothing wrong with the rainfall. It is absolutely normal. If it had not rained, it would have been of concern. It would have been a matter of climate change had a month’s rainfall been cut down to a week,’ says Professor Ain-un Nishat, country representative of the IUCN. This, therefore, points directly to the problems in the city system and plan that is leading to severe water-logging and further problems.

‘The monsoon, it seems, is here to paralyse the entire city,’ says Mahbub Jahangir, whose compressed natural gas-run auto-rickshaw conked out after being stranded in a waterlogged road for an hour or so. ‘The government has to do something about water-logging, immediately.’

Majority of experts blame water-logging on poor city planning and ineptitude of officials in charge of drainage and water control. In other words, they hold Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha and the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority responsible.

‘The irony is that despite several flood episodes, the city planners and the government have not yet taken any concrete steps,’ says Nurul Islam Nazem, a professor of geography at Dhaka University. ‘Water logging is primarily due to water clogging. The water cannot go anywhere nor do we have a comprehensive plan or a proper drainage system to pump out the water. It is the responsibility of the major bodies in-charge of this system to take action.’

The city had a proper plan back in 1969 which was to be valid for 20 years, Nazem says. ‘After that, the city never had a ‘valid and concrete plan’, which could be effectively implemented. How do we expect a plan prepared decades back to be suitable now?’

Ain-un Nishat, however, begs to differ. ‘It is absurd to suggest that the city has no plans. It does have plans and much has been done to combat natural calamities. It is just the technical aspects such as control and maintenance of the system that could be flawed.’

According to experts and urban planners Rajuk’s delay and insincerity in presenting the Dhaka’s detailed area plan has resulted in the filling up of low lands in the city, hence increased water-logging and the danger of flood.

The plan is crucial for planned urbanisation and development of the city and conservation of environment through proper implementation of the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan, which is better known as the master plan. ‘Rajuk does have a detailed area plan but whether or not it is combining the aspects of the master plan is a matter of grave concern,’ says Bahreen Khan, a Supreme Court lawyers and senior member of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.

The master plan which was initiated in 1992 was completed in 1995 and officially gazetted in 1997. But, experts constantly criticise Rajuk for taking more than a decade to complete the detailed area plan. According to sources, the plan has details of every structure, lake, canal, wetland, retention pond, road, open space and all other topographical features of the city. It also takes into account environmentally critical aspects in the areas of infrastructural development. Once it is completed, town planners will have a ready reference for development planning.

While the plan is due this month, some feel it is ineffective and others feel the plan should be done by consulting city planners and architects. ‘The plan is broad and vague,’ says Salma Shafi, an urban planner and architect at the Centre for Urban Studies. ‘They have not consulted anyone properly, nor have they completed half the plan, which has been pending for ages.’

Rajuk denies such allegations. ‘We are in the third phase of planning at the moment and it should be done by next month,’ sources in Rajuk say. ‘In fact, Rajuk has a detailed are plan and has hired four consulting firms — Sheltech Private Limited, Development Design Consultants Limited, Engineering and Planning Consultants Limited and Ganibangla Limited — for the two-year DAP project involving Tk 23.22 crore. Each of these firms will handle specific areas.’

The study area, which covers 1,158 square kilometres, was initially divided into five separate groups — Group A was to cover north-eastern, Group B south-eastern, Group C central, Group D south-western and Group E north-western parts of the city.

According to sources, while five firms were inadequate for the huge task in the first place, the number was reduced to four dividing the work of Group D among the four firms. ‘The idea of rashly dividing one group to four firms may not have been a logical decision,’ admits an official of Rajuk preferring anonymity.

Most environmentalists are concerned whether the detailed area plan will contain original and detailed positions of flood-flow zones, retention ponds, lakes, rivers, canals and strategic planning zones, as earmarked in the master plan.

Moreover, Rajuk faces repeated allegations of preparing the document while keeping the general people in the dark. In a meeting organised by Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnyan Jote and Dhanmondi Abashik Malik Kalayan Samiti at Drik Gallery this month, it was stressed that the plan should be made public before it reached the final stage and professionals needed to be consulted.

While experts and urban planners continue to question the credibility and efficiency of Rajuk, it is yet to make the plan public and take steps that could combat the problem of water-logging immediately. It is clearly due to the delay of Rajuk that the city is being exposed to the hazards of flood and water-logging, they say.

‘The Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority needs replacement of one-fourth of its total water supply pipeline network as it has been ancient and unusable,’ A Q M Mahbub, chairman, department of geography and environment, university of Dhaka, points out. According to experts, most of the city’s 43 canals have been filled over the years due to lack of authorities’ attention, exposing the city to severe water-logging during monsoon.

‘When it rains, the roads are blocked with water simply because the water cannot go anywhere — for one, the drains and canals are not being maintained and secondly, the low-lands and wetlands have been occupied,’ says Salma Shafi.

Savar, Ashulia and areas on the eastern fringe of the city are continuously being filled up in the name of city development, say architects.

‘Box culverts, which were constructed at different places, have also remained clogged for lack of proper cleaning activities,’ says Amanat Ullah Khan, a professor of geography and environment at Dhaka University. ‘We must understand that it is just not one reason that has led to the present circumstances. Often a simplified explanation for water logging or flood is the poor planning and drainage system. But in reality, factors are at work in different ways in different regions. The reasons for water-logging on the eastern side are not essentially similar to those of the central side.’

As the city expands, there has been a dire need for more skilled workforce and engineers, he adds. ‘It’s not that development must be stopped and urbanisation should just take a backseat. It’s just that there is a need to do things in a more culturally advanced way, taking into account various issues.’

Reportedly, some canals reclaimed from encroachers during recent drives, were partly re-excavated and those would be able to drain out stagnant rainwater from many parts of the area, a WASA engineer said.

‘If something significant is to be done then the illegal encroachment of surface drains needs to be stopped immediately and more ways of water pump need to be made available,’ stresses Mahbub. ‘Unplanned urbanisation coupled with encroachments on the outlet canals has destroyed the city sewerage network. Most outlets have either died or become clogged up as the canals have been occupied by private developers and public and autonomous bodies like Rajuk and WASA.’

According to experts, construction of sluice gates by the Water Development Board and sealing of manhole covers during road carpeting are also responsible for water logging.

While WASA faces serious blames in not taking any action concerning the drainage and water pump system, it announced last week that it would start operation of 28 pumps at Janapad to remove clogged water during heavy rainfall.

According to officials, the utility agency will also undertake a project to improve the city’s drainage system with funding from the World Bank.

Zahurul Alam, a WASA superintending engineer, tells New Age that they initiated installation of 25 pumps, each with a capacity of 5cusec, and 3 booster pumps with a capacity of 25 cusec each at Janapad at Kamalapur last month.

Officials have been asked to complete the installation work in two days so that all the 28 pumps can start working at a time.

As the controversy continues, WASA is expected to take immediate action and Rajuk complete its plan by the end of this month. Majority of the experts, however, believe the situation will remain as bad as it is. ‘Unless drastic steps like making developers, planners and engineers bound to make a proper plan, where there will be availability of space for water to recede, there is not going to be any respite for the people,’ says Mahbub.

‘What is important right now is the strict implementation of the laws — the wetlands cannot be filled up and the authorities need to take immediate actions against encroachers,’ says Bahreen Khan. ‘Moreover, the water-logging can only be combated through proper and planned urbanisation- which also takes into account of issues like proper canals and sewage system.’

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