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Cover Story

The Death of Canals

It is an all too familiar scene every rainy season. Even the most modest downpour leaves the city paralysed as clogged drains overflow and flood the potholed roads. We don't often think about why this is so as the struggle of getting to our destination negotiating the flooded roads preoccupies us. But, once upon a time even the heaviest rainfall would not become such a watery nightmare. This is because we had canals back then. Canals are not normally what Dhaka dwellers think about. But as the rainy season comes on with its usual vengeance, they are the most important water bodies we should be worried about.

Ershad Kamol
Photos: zahedul I Khan

Canals of Dhaka used to be the connecting channels of the rivers surrounded by the greater Dhaka district. Even now whatever is left of the canals are used as the primary drainage system for Dhaka. But most of these canals have vanished due to a variety of reasons: unplanned urbanisation, encroachment, lack of co-ordination between the government agencies and lack of maintenance to the system. The few canals left are on the verge of extinction as they have lost their flow, blocked by either roads or unauthorised structures. As a result, each year, the city dwellers face acute water logging during the rainy season. These canals are used to drain out millions of cubic metres of domestic and industrial sewage to the surrounding rivers from the centre of the city. Which is why the rivers are also badly affected. The environmental degradation of the canals makes sure that people living besides the canals live in misery with the onslaught of breeding mosquitoes and odious stench since residents continuously dumps solid wastes into these canals.

Whenever the monsoon approaches, many areas of Dhaka go under water. Since the canals-- the primary drainage system of the city-- are blocked, they cannot carry the huge volume of storm water generated during the monsoon. Thus almost one-third area of the city including Motijheel, Shantinagar, Rajarbagh, Mouchak, Najimuddin Road, Jigatola, a few parts of Dhanmondi, Kazipara, Paikpara, Bijoy Sarani and others go under water.

For the commuters and residence of the areas it is sheer agony. "The sewage of the open drain comes on to the road," says Rokshana Akhtar, a resident of Khilgaon Chowdhury Para. "The hassle of walking through the dirt cannot be described."

Water logging creates unavoidable crises for office goers. Akhtar Hossain, who works in a private company at Motijheel, says "We suffer a lot because of water logging. Most of the rickshaw pullers refuse to go to the destination. And those who agree ask almost double the fare. As a result, folding my trousers to the knee, I walk through water for a rickshaw that will charge a reasonable fare."

The stagnant water in the canals is a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects. Diseases carried by mosquitoes are common during the monsoon. Imamuddin Chowdhury, a resident of Rupnagar says, "Almost every house near Rupnagar Khal in Rupnagar are full of mosquitoes. We use spray, mosquito coils and nets but cannot save ourselves. I'm worried about the health of our newborn baby. Besides, thousands of insects grooming in the canal have made our life miserable in the coming monsoon."

The Drainage Department of Dhaka Water Supply and Sewage Authority (Dwasa) accuses housing companies and developers of filling up or narrowing down many canals.

"Most of the housing companies have been building housing projects filling up canals and other water bodies in the low lying areas," informs a high official of the Drainage Department, "When, we issue a notice to them for killing the canals, they install large diameter pipelines as the replacement, completely disregarding the law. But, these pipelines are not sufficient to maintain the normal flow of the canals. Because of such activities of the housing companies, the drainage system of Dhaka has collapsed causing serious flood problem."

Encroachers have narrowed down many canals like this. Lack of renovation and rampant disposal of solid wastes have turned Jirani Khal into a mosquito breeding ground.

Filling up the canals, many politically backed big shots have also constructed buildings and other structures. For instance, the former MP of Mirpur area has filled a huge area of a canal. Even the wife of a former President once tried to encroach a part of a canal in Mirpur.

Canals have been filled up for both rich and poor. Apart from the illegal buildings of the rich, slums have also been built on the canals. Construction of these unauthorised structures has narrowed down the channels of most of the existing canals. Politically backed locals are the owners of these slums and other structures.

Another major cause for narrowing the channels of the canals is dumping of solid wastes. Because of a lack of dumping facilities, people dump solid wastes into the canals and other drainage system. Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) has failed to provide facilities for dumping of millions of tonnes of solid wastes generated each day. The city dwellers are equally responsible for dumping solid wastes into the canals.

Canals carry untreated industrial effluents and domestic wastes into the surrounding rivers of Dhaka.

"Within a few days after cleaning of a canal, it's filled up again by the locals. They never feel that such improper dumping of solid wastes not only kills the canals, but is also a threat for public health. I've even seen apparently educated persons dispose garbage into the manhole, which destroys the drainage system of the city," says the high official of Dwasa.

Lack of coordination of the utility service agencies is a major cause for killing the canals. Roads of the city have been built across many canals, which makes the canals stagnant. On the other hand, Wasa does little more than send the DCC letters that their roads are creating obstacles on the flow of the canals. For example, Jirani Khal that stretches from Sayedabad bridge to Trimohoni has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a major source of water logging in Madartek and Basabo as several roads built right through it are obstructing its water flow.

Dwasa is facing such problems with many government agencies including the DCC, Roads and Highways, DESA, complains the high official of the Drainage Department.

Admitting the problem, the Mayor of the DCC Sadeq Hossain Khoka tells The Star, "For the last few years I've been saying that some utility services, especially Dhaka Wasa, Planning Department of Rajuk and a few branches of the police such as the Traffic police department must be under the jurisdiction of the DCC. Otherwise it's not possible to provide proper utility services for the city dwellers.

"At present, we don't know what Rajuk and Dwasa are doing. Similarly those agencies do not have any idea of our plans. The utility services dig the roads for development works. And ultimately the DCC has to take its responsibility. On the other hand, as per the demand of the local ward commissioners, the DCC constructs roads that may obstacle canals a few places. In fact, nothing will work properly unless such activities are monitored centrally," he adds.

So why did the DCC convert Dholai Khal into a box culvert? The DCC Mayor replies, "It was done in the 1980s as prescribed by the World Bank."

In fact, experiments done by the donor agencies have killed many canals. Prescribed and funded by World Bank, ADB and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) four major canals -- Dholai Khal, Shegunbagicha Khal, Paribagh Khal and Dhanmondi Khal (now Panthopath) -- were converted to box culverts in the mid 1980s. Such conversion has virtually killed these canals, since the Drainage Department of DWasa is not equipped with machinery to clean the huge length of box culverts. As a result, the city centre faces terrible water logging.

Fifteen years after the inception of the Shegunbagicha box culvert, a 2.88km channel from Shegunbagicha to Kamalapur railway culvert, only last year DWasa for the first time tried to renovate the canal using dredgers. But, it failed to do it properly as a result of which people living over the 36 square kilometres areas including Shantinagar, Kakrail, Fakirapul, Rajarbagh, Arambagh and Motijheel are facing water logging.

An engineer of Wasa Drainage Department says, "It's not possible to renovate the box culvert manually. During the implementation stage of a project, we never think about the maintenance system. That's the major problem with most of the development projects in Bangladesh. In fact, there should not be uninterrupted box culverts of huge length in Bangladesh."

A few of the canals renovated by the last caretaker government. Photos: DWASA

"The World Bank will never do such experimentation in any western country," says historian Professor Muntasir Mamoon, "Because of such activities we have lost many canals. Personally, I saw canals at Shegunbagicha, Paribagh, Kantaban, Shonargaon, Ramna, Shahbagh, Motijheel, Nawabpur and many other areas. Besides working as the storm drainage systems, these canals used to be waterways. In fact, they were the connecting routes of the rivers. Big boats used these canals as channels to move from one river to another."

"However, at present most of the canals are gone and on the verge of extinction. Canals, which still exist, are being used to drain out domestic and industrial sewage, since we have no effective drainage system in the city. As the city dwellers are the worst victims of these problems, they should create pressure on the government to solve this crisis."

A noble initiative by the four party alliance to replace the roads that have blocked Jirani Khal by bridges never saw light of day.
Mayor Sadeq Hossain Khoka

In fact, the drainage system of Dhaka was defective and inadequate even during the British colonial period. An administrative report in 1882-83 notes, “The drainage system of the city was defective when the city area was around 20 km only. The main outlets mostly run north and south and fall into the river and the khals, which pass through the heart of the town. There are some pucca and large number of kutcha drains on road and lane sides. But their fall is mostly defective as the streams are slow in carrying water into outlets.” (Dhaka Municipality Administration Report, 1882-83, reproduced in a document, A City and its Civic Body. (A centenary publication of Dhaka Municipality, 1966), quoted from Mott MacDonald, 1993.

The drainage system in Dhaka was first established in 1923. Over the years many master plans for an adequate drainage system was initiated. A full-scale sewerage master plan was formulated in 1968 by the Department of Public Health and Engineering. As a follow up, several other organisations and agencies had formulated several master plans including flood control and drainage plan was carried out by several agencies and development partners in 1976, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985 and again in 1987. However, the drainage situation in a mega city like Dhaka is still far from being satisfactory, which is acutely evident during periods of even moderate showers. It is a system that is nothing short of bizarre.

From the beginning of its inception in 1968 DWasa, the government agency planned to introduce a separate drainage system (for storm water and sewage) in the city. So far it has only 110 square kilometre sewerage and 150 square kilometre drainage lines, which is inadequate to say the least. Dhaka Wasa has only one sewage treatment plant at Pagla with the capacity of 0.12 million cubic metres per day, which is only the 10 percent of total sewage generated in the city. But, because of inadequate, separate sewage lines, the treatment plant is using one third of its capacity. As a result, untreated domestic and industrial sewage through the canals are drained out to the river, eventually polluting the water bodies.

Greater Dhaka has an area of 350 square kilometres while DWasa has only a service area of 140 square kilometres which includes 10 km of box culvert and 65 km open channel. There are 245 km of pipe drain and 3 pump stations with a capacity of 54.4 cumec an estimated storm water generation of 140 cumec.
Besides Dwasa, the DCC has installed open drains and underground drains which carry a huge volume of untreated domestic sewage into the canals.

"Both encroachment and pollution are killing the canals," says Professor Mujibur Rahman of Buet, under whose guidance the ongoing Begunbari-Hatirjhil project is going on. He adds, "Because of insufficient sewerage lines we are facing terrible problems at the Hatirjhil project. As a result, to keep the project pollution free we are planning to set a device that will separate sewage from the storm water."

To save the canals Professor Rahman suggests, "It's true that a separate drainage system is feasible for Dhaka since rain is seasonal in the city. But, Dwasa has completely failed to provide this separate drainage system.

One of the blocked canals of Dhaka that contributes to the water logging of the city. Both housing companies and owners of industries have encroached upon the canals of the city.

We don't want to see Wasa waiting any longer for a master plan, rather the government agency must take some immediate steps such as installation of adequate, separate, drainage lines for storm water and sewage and of a few sewage treatment plants at different corners of the city. Meanwhile Rajuk, DCC and Department of Environment must provide the required facilities for dumping and septic tanks. At the same time they must keep keen monitoring to save the canals from environmental degradation."

The last caretaker government formed a task force to improve the condition of the

Many canals of the city now flow in a narrow channel which is insufficient to carry the storm water.

canals. Initially, the task force targeted 26 canals to be recovered from the encroachment and to initiate some developmental works. The taskforce successfully evicted many slums and structures as well as stopped encroachment of a few housing companies such as Eastern Housing Limited. For the development of the canals, the task force recommended short term, mid term and long term plans. But after the change of the government, activities of the task force has become stagnant, informs a high official of DWasa.

Bureaucratic tangles are always a major hurdle for Dwasa for saving these canals from encroachment and pollution. The maintenance agency for canals does not have the sufficient authority to initiate any action.

Of the existing 54 canals, only 19 canals of the western part of Dhaka are under the jurisdiction of Dwasa. Of the remaining seven canals, five canals of that part of the city are under the jurisdiction of National Housing Authority and DCC is the authority for the other two canals. All the 17 canals of the eastern part of the city are still under the jurisdiction of Deputy Commissioner's Office. The 11 canals of the DND area are under the jurisdiction of Bangladesh Water Development Board.

Donor agencies have suggested some mitigation programmes. For the development of the canals the World Bank has come up with 10 detailed study programmes. The tenure of all these programmes will end next year, but none of them have even started due to many obstacles such as disputes over land and rehabilitation of slum dwellers.

Only some mitigation programmes are going on for the drainage system initiated by the government and the JICA. But, these programmes are not adequate to meet such a complex crisis.

Dwasa, however, seems hopeful. In view of numerous shortcomings and problems, the government agency has invited the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) to carry out a short study on the drainage master plan for Dhaka city. The IWM has already submitted a report with some specific suggestions such as dividing greater Dhaka topologically into three parts: Western Dhaka, Eastern Dhaka and the DND project area.

"Recommendations for drainage improvement in western Dhaka, eastern Dhaka and DND area include a set of general recommendations such as cleaning the channels of the canals and dredging of the surrounding rivers as well as a number of specific recommendations" says SM Mahbubur Rahman, Principal Specialist and Head of Water Resource Planning Division of IWM.

But how will these recommendations be implemented? Rahman replies, "The government must provide a master plan for the city and force the city dwellers to follow it. Otherwise no plan regarding the drainage will operate properly. At the same time, there should be only one government agency for monitoring and maintenance of the drainage system including canals, secondary and tertiary drainage lines."

It is a positive sign that the parliamentary standing committee on land ministry has already asked the concerned ministries to conduct a fresh survey to identify areas of rivers and canals across the country that have been gobbled up by encroachers so that they could be recovered and put a halt to the ongoing river pollution as well. To save the city dwellers from water logging and environmental degradation it is expected that the government takes some immediate actions to revive the existing canals of Dhaka.

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