Why must Dhaka drown after heavy rain?

The writer says the government must revisit their plans and see where they are going wrong with these investments, or evaluate if their strategy is even relevant in the first place.

Tasneem Tayeb

Tasneem Tayeb

The Daily Star


Some areas in Dhaka city remained waterlogged even two days after the downpour on the night of September 21, 2023. PHOTO: THE DAILY STAR

September 27, 2023

DHAKA – While Dhaka was being lashed by a rainstorm on the evening of September 21, a tragedy unfolded near Dhaka Commerce College in Mirpur as four lives, including three of a family, were lost to electrocution amid waterlogging.

Street vendor Mizanur Rahman (32) was trying to cross an inundated road – as an immediate result of the 134mm rainfall the capital endured since the evening on Thursday – with his seven-month-old son Hossain in his arms, along with his wife Mukta Begum (22), and seven-year-old daughter Lima. They were returning to their home in a slum near Botanical Garden from Mukta’s parental home in Jhilpar slum. Lightning struck, leading to an electric wire falling into the water, which resulted in the electrocution of the family. A 20-year-old autorickshaw driver, Anik, was the only person who dared to go to the rescue of the family. As Anik pushed baby Hossain from the arms of his electrocuted father, he too lost his life. Later, videos on social media surfaced showing how a handful of bystanders were trying to get the lifeless bodies out of the water using gamchha and sticks.

The downpour resulted in unspeakable suffering for city dwellers, including severe waterlogging in many areas in New Market, Mirpur, Dakshinkhan, Khilkhet, Ashkona, Bangshal, Jurain, and Matuail, among others. While the city corporations did try to remove water from many of the worst affected areas, the inefficient drainage system made it difficult to do so. Some areas remained waterlogged even two days after the downpour, such as Jurain, Shyampur, Abdullahpur, Dakshin Khan, Uttar Khan, Ashkona.

The tragedy of the family-of-four on Thursday night has once again brought to fore the never-ending failure of the city’s drainage system. From unplanned and environmentally-hostile urbanisation to random digging of the roads by various authorities and the drains being clogged due to irresponsible waste disposal, there are multiple factors contributing to our persistent waterlogging woes.

First of all, while we are surrounding the city with high-rise buildings – both commercial and residential – we are doing little to also build the capacity of the drainage system to bear this added load. In the pursuit of urbanising Dhaka, we have encroached upon ponds, lakes, and canals, blocking the channels that are critical for effective natural drainage of water, including by government bodies themselves, resulting in rapid loss of natural drainage mechanisms. Take, for instance, the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC), which earlier filled about 11 acres of a 53-acre water retention area in Gabtoli’s Goidartek for the establishment of a four-storey building to be used as a tissue culture laboratory. Then, in 2021, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) took initiatives to build eco parks and other permanent structures by filling up the Turag River. The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) last year filled up a water retention pond in Ashkona for a housing project for its employees and officials. All this, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg.

According to Fire Service and Civil Defence data, of the 100 ponds recorded in Dhaka in 2018, at least 71 have been filled up over the last five years. And, according to a survey report by the Institute of Water Modelling, wetlands, canals, and lowlands covering more than 10,000 hectares in Dhaka have been choked since 1985.

Both the DNCC and DSCC mayors in January 2021, after being handed over the responsibility for the drainage system from Dhaka Wasa, committed that the lost water bodies would be reclaimed. But little visible progress has been made so far. At that time, the DSCC went so far as to suggest that the Shyampur, Manda, Kalunagar, and Jirni canals along with Panthapath and Shegunbagicha box culverts would be reclaimed and developed so that, by March that year, the locals would get respite from waterlogging. Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic red tape, funds for the project, titled “Canal Restoration, Renovation and Aesthetic Environment Creation Project,” could not be cleared for months and months. And even since the funds were allocated, no visible and effective progress has been made in the project so far.

The second major problem contributing to the capital’s waterlogging woes is the poorly managed drainage system that gives up in the face of slight downpours. A lot of it certainly has to do with our ill-managed waste disposal system. Despite the 2002 ban on the use of polythene bags, they are still in use and often end up in the drains, canals, and other water bodies, thus clogging the waterways. This is the result of a two-pronged problem: 1) the lack of enforcement of the plastic ban; and 2) the disorganised and insufficient waste management system across the country, not just in Dhaka.

A study titled “Solid Waste Management in Dhaka City” by Nature Study Society of Bangladesh suggests that about 5,000 tonnes of waste is generated in Dhaka every day, of which only about half is collected and disposed of in an organised manner. Although the blame is often put on the people, in a city where there is an acute lack of waste disposal bins (let alone segregated bins), it is a challenge for even those with good intentions to practise responsible waste disposal. The onus is on the city corporations to make sure that there are sufficient services and mechanisms in place for people to discard waste responsibly.

Even when it comes to waste collection by the municipality, while recyclable waste (such as e-waste, recyclable fabric, and plastic waste) is collected and sold to actors in the recycling industry, the waste that cannot be recycled (including single-use plastic products such as one-time utensils, straws, etc) is dumped haphazardly in random places.

These wastes – biodegradable, non-biodegradable, chemical, electronic, and recyclable – often end up jumbled together in the wrong places, including in canals, lakes, ponds, drains, and openings of drains, such that water cannot pass through them. Even the investment of around Tk 1,300 crore by the two city corporations between 2016 and 2020 to declutter canals, drains, box culverts, and remove accumulated waste have not made any impact because, after the clean-up, irresponsibly dumped waste smothers these openings anew.

The two city corporations in the capital do sound sincere when they say they are working relentlessly to recover the canals and ponds, or developing a drainage system to eliminate the problem of waterlogging. Still, their efforts are not resulting in any positive, demonstrable changes in the situation. While more than Tk 3,000 crore has been spent to combat waterlogging in Dhaka – by Dhaka Wasa and the city corporations in the last 12 years – these investments have yielded almost no results.

In response to the paralysis of the city due to Thursday’s rain, both the city corporations are only sharing laundry lists of the work that they have apparently done. But all this shows is that whatever the city corporations are doing is simply not working. They must revisit their plans and see where they are going wrong with these investments, or evaluate if their strategy is even relevant in the first place. Baby Hossain was saved this time around. But there are more children out there who are at the risk of losing their lives due to our ineffective drainage system. No one should have to die due to the failures – if not apathy – of the authorities.

Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her X handle is @tasneem_tayeb

Views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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