Freeing Dhaka of its curse of water-logging

Dhaka,  Thu,  21 September 2017
Published : 03 Aug 2017, 20:52:44 | Updated : 03 Aug 2017, 20:54:07

Freeing Dhaka of its curse of water-logging

Shihab Sarkar
Although comparison between the two South Asian cities --- Kolkata and Dhaka, in respect of planning, does not seem reasonable, the rapid growth of them has things in common. These features relate to the two cities both physically and population-wise.  The cities have experienced ever increasing influxes from outside: in the case of Kolkata it was from different parts of India; Dhaka saw it in the form of migration from the country's rural areas in different regions. 

Owing to its being the capital of British India (1772-1911), Kolkata has witnessed a well-planned growth since its initial days. According to many urban experts, the city was modelled on the great city of London. On the other hand, Dhaka has long been known as a city rapidly developed without much scientific planning. Its growth has been said to be haphazard and plagued by discontinuities.  But the fact that remains blurred in time is Dhaka, too, had its brief phase of planning based on its many geo-physical and socio-cultural features. This stage dates back to the town's administration under the Mughal Subedars. In early 17th century, Dhaka enjoyed the distinction of being the capital of Bengal under Subedar Islam Khan, and later as the largest city in Sube Bangla.

The July 26 monsoon rains and the debilitating water-logging of Dhaka have prompted many to find out whether the city has been grown on any realistic urban planning since its early days. Unlike Kolkata, for a long time it remained deprived of a well-thought-out plan meant for ideal urban centres like London. But it had eventually got a plan of sorts. Finding Dhaka to be a rain- and flood-prone area, the Mughal administrators of the then Dhaka excavated around 50 canals in different parts of the town. The objective was to flush out monsoon water and keep Dhaka free of water-logging. 

Later, the British rulers took over the town's administration. A long period had elapsed in the meantime without much noticeable urban development in Dhaka. In 1917 the British government gave Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) the task of designing a full-fledged town plan for Dhaka. Geddes was later globally acclaimed as having pioneered ecological planning, ecological design and bioregionalism.  The work by Geddes came to be known as the first-ever town plan for Dhaka, then capital of East Bengal. That historic plan put special emphasis on re-excavation of the four rivers around Dhaka, the Mughal-era inner-city canals and specifying rain water retention areas. Special emphasis on these steps was prompted by the necessity of letting the rain water flow out of the town. Recommendations were also made to protect the canals and other water bodies. In fact, Dhaka was fortunate to have its first town planning done by a talented and creative town planner. 

Seeing the repeated deluge of Dhaka in the recent years after prolonged spells of rain, the whole system appears to have gone awry. The problem of water-logging in every part of Dhaka, even in those areas known as flooding-proof, has lately begun returning with increased ferocity almost every year. The Dhaka proper has been used to heavy monsoon rains since ancient times. But in the past, the Mughal fort-town and business centre would hardly experience the water-logging of residential and commercial neighbourhoods. Even on the day in 1956 high-monsoon, when a continuous 12-hour-long rain hit the record mark of 12 inches in Dhaka, the roads and the low-lying areas of the city did not remain under water for more than two to three hours. 

Over the last couple of decades around 70 per cent of the city's surface goes under knee to waist-deep water after a prolonged rain. Some of these places, including vital roads, residential houses, marketplaces and educational institutions, remain waterlogged for more than a week. Monsoon water-logging adds menacingly to Dhaka's plethora of scourges and endemic woes. It surfaced once again in a terrible demonstration after the heavy rain on last July 26.

Dhaka's water-logging has not been created in a day. Decades of unplanned construction spree, encroachment on rivers and canals and flood flow zones, etc. have contributed to the snowballing of the crisis. Of late, lack of coordination between different urban authorities in the task of keeping the city functional has dealt a great blow to its prospects for becoming an ideal city. In this regard the face-off and buck-passing between the Dhaka South and North City Corporations and Dhaka WASA deserve to be highlighted specially.  The tiff between the two city corporations and the Dhaka WASA is centred on who'll perform the task of storm and stagnant water drainage. If the city corporations are given the task of flushing out Dhaka's rainwater, they demand that they be allowed to oversee the performance of WASA (Water and Sewerage Authority). The WASA has lately been assigned the added task of flood and storm water drainage in addition to its normal responsibilities. Lack of proper coordination has only been creating bottlenecks to Dhaka's much-hyped growth.

It has been 100 long years now since Dhaka was given a town plan of its own by the British rulers. It got its first town plan in 1959 in the then East Pakistan after the British left the sub-continent in 1947. The plan was put to work for a period of 20 years, up to 1980. In the meantime, East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh. Against the backdrop of fresh and unforeseen realities, the 1959 town plan had lost much of its relevance. Dhaka began to emerge as a fast-growing and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. By the time Dhaka had put to execution its master plan in 1997, its urban woes took multifarious forms --- flooding and stagnant rain water occupying a dominant place among them. The next master plan for Dhaka was launched in 2015, with the same urban problems finding a major place in it. Dhaka's city plans chalked out under RAJUK, the capital development authority; the Detailed Area Plan (DAP) in particular, tried to keep within their breadth the urban problems that grew out of the newer realities. These plans also emphasised land use zoning, infrastructure development and effective utility services. The problems of water-logging and water drainage have also found due importance in the documents. Unfortunately, the solutions remained elusive.

 As expected, restoring the natural drainage including the rivers and canals lost over time has been mentioned in these plans. So have the flood and rain water retention areas. But none has specified these areas. The way the critical urban scourge of flooding has been dealt with in the Dhaka development plans seems perfunctory.  It has disappointed the town planners visualising a livable city. The only option people living in the metropolis have before them for now is perhaps the Dhaka Structural Plan (2016-2035).

But before its implementation, the restoration of Dhaka's now-lost canals warrants utmost priority. Dhaka can ill afford to allow its Mughal-era canals to slip into oblivion this blatant way.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
Published by the Editor for International Publications Limited from Tropicana Tower (4th floor), 45, Topkhana Road, GPO Box : 2526 Dhaka- 1000 and printed by him from City Publishing House Ltd., 1 RK Mission Road, Dhaka-1000.
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