On the fateful night of July 1, 2011 18-year-old Muhammed Anik was among the fortunate few who survived a ghastly accident. Anik, who went to buy groceries that night, was returning home when Batali Hill protection wall, along with a huge chunk of earth, fell on him, trapping him in the crevice that the fallen wall had created.
“I heard the noise of something falling and immediately I lay on the ground, a few minutes later I found myself trapped but safe.”
Anik could not move as the 70-feet-long wall pressed on his back. Rain water and mud were coming down heavily. He tried screaming at intervals but no one heard him amidst the thunder and storm. He languished under the girder for four hours with fear of death and thirst for water. “I cannot explain what it felt like being trapped under the dark cave of the wall,” says the teenager adding, “I heard people screaming around me and I started shouting too. Hours later I was rescued. I believe myself lucky to be saved from such a nightmare.”
In the last two years, landslides, lightning and drowning caused by non-stop rainfalls have claimed 120 lives in the Chittagong division. Besides the causalities death, the train line with Chittagong was snapped as the railway bridge had collapsed at Kumira near Bhatiary and the flight operations at Shah Amanat International Airport also had to be terminated after the inundation of the runway.
Experts blame failure of different governmental offices to prevent such disasters in the hilly area. In 2007, following the most shocking mudslide in the Chittagong port city that took 127 lives, a divisional Hill Management Committee (HMC) was formed. Since then, every year the committee prepared short-term and long-term plans with a number of recommendations to handle such catastrophes. Experts say that the last year's slide has revealed the reluctance of the committee and its lack of enthusiasm to implement decisions.
Every year in the beginning of the monsoon, the port city faces the same catastrophe, yet there is no strong database to figure out the reasons behind the landslides. Architect Zarina Hossain, former national planner of Chittagong Metropolitan Master Plan (CMMP), says, “The CMMP strategic plan was finalised in 1995 and was approved in 1999. Based on that, the detailed area plan was drawn in 2008. Moreover, one of the major proposals was land readjustment and framing related laws and regulations. However, nothing has been done so far.”
Instead of executing the master plan, in the name of world class urbanisation, the Chittagong Development Authority (CDA) started to build residential area Kolpolok and Ononna, in the two big flood lands of the city. So, as the prime rainwater harvesting areas were filled up, most importantly the canals, the city was drowned by silt water.
Zarina says, “Last years' flooding was due to filling of the rivers and other water courses by silt of those cut hills besides back tides. Individual companies had cut the hills under their ownership without reference to other parts of the hills. They did not consider topography and the drainage catchments of the hills when developing so that other areas are not affected.”
Moreover, authorities concerned and the owners of the marked hills have never taken steps to check hill cutting, tree felling and the shifting of human settlements along the 12 hilly areas. The Chittagong City Corporation (CCC) mayor M Manjur Alam blamed water logging and the HMC because of its failure to facilitate people receding on hill slopes. However, he refuses to agree that the CCC has also failed to take any effective steps.
He says, “We are trying our heart and soul to solve the problems. Even before the rain began, we tried to convince people to move from the danger areas. But no one listened to us,” also adding that disaster happened because of flood, implying that rain is not the major factor.
However, except some routine work, the last year's annual budget of the CCC didn't mention any plan to resolve water logging in the city. Apart from water logging, the annual budget allocates 20 important sectors. According to the master plan, the city needs five new canals to drain its water but the budget allocates 290 crore takas for a canal from Borai Para to Karnaphuli.
In the past year, the CCC also planned to build a high rise building to accommodate people living in the marked area. Unfortunately the plan still remains unexplored, and hapless victims like Anik face grave danger. Anik says, “It is illogical, we don't have any place to go. So before asking to leave they should at least make a shelter for us. No one wants to live in the hills, which are like death-traps. But we are bound to do so as there are no alternatives places for us to move to.”
Interestingly, former CCC Mayor ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury during his tenure had cemented most of the part of Chaktai Khal at Tk 50 crore. Experts are surprised about his decision since a cemented canal cannot keep up with the increasing pressure of a huge population. In the name of development, he also occupied most of the city canals. Among 16 canals, more or less all of them have been occupied by the City Corporation and the private owners. After the end of his tenure, the new mayor also did not take any step to free the canals.
Since its formation, the hill management committee has never been able to take any preventive measure to protect people from the disasters. On condition of anonymity a member of the HMC also admits their lacking and says, “We have very limited power to play any role. The hilly areas marked dangerous are owned by different government offices and because of inefficient and inadequate coordination, each year the recommendations were not implemented.”
Last year just before the rainy season, the HMC decided to engage a mobile court to put an end to hill cutting, continuing the efforts to relocate the dwellers from the vulnerable hill slopes, to take measure to avert fresh encroachment of hills and a rapid evacuation before any disaster.
Zarina stressed on the need for taking feasible action plans as well as implementing the recommendations made earlier to avert landslides, adding that Chittagong Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) would extend all-out cooperation in this regard.
Muzammel Hoque, former Vice Chancellor of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology (CUET), says, 'Meetings take place after every incident. A number of recommendations have also come out. But they are never fully implemented. Moreover, how effective can a forced eviction be, is also a matter of question,' he says, adding that implementation of these recommendations were imperative to find a way out of such disasters. In the last decade, due to encroachment and arbitrary hill cutting, at least 250 people were killed during landslides in Chittagong. However, authorities are yet to learn any lesson.