Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan member secretary, urbanisation and good governance Iqbal Habib says that filling lowlands in Dhaka means driving the last nail in the coffin for Dhaka’s existence.
Lowlands are part of an intricate water network considered the lifeline of the city ever since it was founded between the Buriganga and the Dholaikhal, he goes on to say.
But over the years as the city grew, he finds, the network was gradually lost pushing the city to the verge of being collapsed in terms of its liveability.
‘We cannot afford to fill any more low land,’ says Iqbal in an interview with New Age.
He still finds it possible to find the way back to the water-based urbanisation once planned for the development of Dhaka in view of its geographical position amidst a vast water network.
‘It is already late. But we don’t have a choice,’ Iqbal points out.
‘Only strong political will can do the job by restoring the water network. To begin with, let us ensure first that no fresh low land is filled,’ he says.
Iqbal refers to the first ever structure plan of Dhaka by British planner Patrick Geddes in 1917-18 to begin with the story of how a city of blue network turned into a concrete jungle lacking the capacity to even drain rain water.
Even a century ago, the city’s life, business, commerce and even communications depended solely on the water network.
The network was consisted of canals, water bodies, floodplains and rivers and there were about 52 canals in Dhaka.
‘The network not only protected the city against floods but also saved it from flash floods caused by heavy rains,’ he says.
But everything started to change, Iqbal recounts, in independent Bangladesh where Dhaka became the centre of the new country’s administrative, business, commerce, health and other activities, attracting a large number of migrants every year.
‘The city population grew by up to seven per cent every year,’ said Iqbal.
In the city, the water network was the first to bear the effect from the migration of the huge number of people.
The city had a structure plan formulated in 1959 but a legal framework to materialise the plan was not in place until 1997, when Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan came into being, he says.
‘The DMDP was the first administrative initiative to get Dhaka in a shape,’ Iqbal mentions.
An initiative was taken to get a detailed area plan for implementation of DMDP but it took almost 15 years to get one as the first DAP was not completed until 2010.
‘In terms of a development plan, its applicability remains for a maximum of 15 years,’ Iqbal posits.
Many of the canals earmarked for protection in the DMDP could not be found in reality as those were filled up with the authorities struggling to complete its planning.
‘We lost an opportunity to preserve our water network,’ he regrets.
‘Another opportunity was missed for building a hydro ecological city,’ he adds.
Conflict among different government bodies responsible for protecting the water network made the situation worse all the more, he thinks.
The conflict rose after the historic flooding in the 1980s, Iqbal says, as a huge financial aid or grant entered Bangladesh with different government bodies seeking a share of it.
‘Everybody came up with a project,’ he says.
It was around the time Water Supply and Sewerage Authority became involved in the management of drains for the first time, which until then was the task of Department of Public Health.
City corporation also assumed some responsibilities for maintenance of drains while Water Development Board began taking care of river banks.
The office of Dhaka’s deputy commissioner also came to be involved in the process of protecting the water network citing that it was government land.
‘An administrative chaos broke loose,’ Iqbal mentions.
‘Suddenly, it became everybody’s responsibility to save the water network,’ says Iqbal.
‘But we know what happens when everybody wants to take responsibility of something,’ he says, adding, ‘nobody actually takes care of it.’
The conflicting government bodies only looked on as a nexus of businessmen and politicians grabbed canals, rivers and lowland.
‘Gradually public property became private,’ Iqbal says.
Construction of box culverts for building roads replacing waterways dealt a major blow to the city canals.
‘Soon the canals were concealed from our sight and everybody started filling low land,’ Iqbal says.
‘We became dependent on an artificial network of drain and the city became covered with concrete,’ he said.
With concretisation increased the problem of water logging as surface runoff increased with 80 per cent of rainwater failing to percolate down the ground.
‘Previously almost 60 per cent of rain water percolated down the ground,’ Iqbal says.
The increased surface runoff also caught WDB off guard as it went out of their capacity to pump water out of the city surrounded by embankments.
‘These embankments are completely unnecessary and should be removed in the process of restoring the water network,’ Iqbal states.
Last year the government managed to organise a meeting in which all conflicting government offices agreed to work under Dhaka city corporations in an integrated plan to restore the water network.
WASA, RAJUK, BUET, LGED, engineering core of army and other relevant professional institutions agreed to join efforts in the process of rescuing city canals to re-establish the water network.
He said that BAPA made a number of recommendations to materialise the dream of re-establishing the network.
One of the recommendations, he says, was that WASA gave up managing drainage system after removing all box culverts built so far.
Another recommendation was solid waste management by Dhaka city corporations to prevent people from dumping into canals.
BAPA also recommended that the government should also prepare for land acquisition for reconnecting canals in Dhaka.
‘The government also needs to launch a massive awareness campaign to get people on board in the journey to restore the blue network,’ he says.
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