Taking back Dhaka’s waterways

Mehedi Haque explains, through two simple examples, how Dhaka’s water-logging problem can be solved

018Haphazard filling up of canals and rivers in Dhaka and impetuous actions taken by the urban management agencies are leading to severe water logging- such statement is too superficial to fathom the ins and outs of the problem because it is always confined to another statement that we all have to accept in order to combat the problem. But who will come forward; as soon as any awful urban disaster takes place we usually find the agencies playing blame games.
Have you ever thought why almost all the streets in Dhaka are inundated after an hour’s rain during the last month? Understanding the scale of the problem properly is a prerequisite for finding a solution to that problem. Let us try to comprehend what led to the unprecedented urban disaster.
Geographically, Bangladesh is in a convenient position with numerous canals and water bodies as well as many rivers flowing into it. So we can assume that two things would be easy: fetching and discharging water.
Interestingly, Bangladesh is struggling to manage these two tasks. It literally astounds me that we pump groundwater for drinking despite a great amount of surface water. At the same time we also adopt projects worth millions of dollars to discharge water through pipes though such attempts have turned out to be unsuccessful. The initiation of urbanisation is not very old so it is natural that urban planners will make mistakes. So we can only hope that the next generations will learn from the mistakes and take congruous approaches.
Let us focus on the water discharge infrastructure of Dhaka city: The canals, in and around the city, end at the rivers. Once upon a time, anyone could go to the rivers by rowing boats into the canals. In 1608, during the era of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, boat races were arranged in the canals and people bathed in those water bodies. Islam Khan, administrator of Mughal empire who established Dhaka, realised the essence of proper drainage system as an important facet of urbanisation.
019According to the characteristics of urbanisation, an urban area comprises of artificial piped water utility line and sewerage line. Such facilities were all present in Nalanda. During that time and era, Islam Khan dug a connecting canal known as Dolai Khal for water discharge. He foresaw the need of canals even at that time, but unfortunately we fail to understand its importance by filling up these water bodies haphazardly.
Now Dhaka is the home of around one and half crore people so the drainage system seriously requires more attention. But we are filling up the water bodies continuously to build sky-scrapers.
Water is also an important element for the balance in biodiversity but we are denying it. We cannot find many public transport systems in the waterways. We only put emphasis on building roads. Those, with higher degrees from institutions abroad, are also failing to understand what problem this will put the future generations of Dhaka in.
Let us look at a satellite picture. At the top of the right, the water body is Hatirjheel that flows into Kawranbazar, then Free School Street, then Dhanmondi Lake and finally ends in Buriganga at Beribandh. The grey concrete shows the filled-up areas.
During Ershad-regime, large pipes were installed into the canal in the Free School Street part, thus killing the flow of the canal. The whole red line shows that the water body had direct connection to the river earlier. That means anyone at that time could travel from Rampura to Dhanmondi by boat and to the Buriganga through the route. In fact, it is still possible if renovated.
Moreover, there would no water logging if rain water can be poured to the water line. Earlier, the water in Dhaka flowed in the same way water flows in rural areas. Other than finding easy solutions we find policy-makers opting for complicated procedures.
Look at the Begunbari Khal beside Hatirjheel-Kawranbazar road; there is no connection to the canal to discharge water of the road. If there is a connection, the flow of water will hampered at points: the rail line at Kawranbazar and the BGMEA building. And again it is blocked at Panthakunja Park though there are connecting sewage pipes under it. Besides liquid sewage, solid and semi-solid sewage is flowing into it. When solid sewage blocks the way, the water naturally overflows.
Hence there are plenty of ways through which the water can be discharged which are also very simple.
I have tried to present the basic causes of the problem. We now need to restore the flow of canals and water bodies. To recover these canals we need to have the courage and I believe that we, as a nation, have that courage.

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