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     Volume 8 Issue 81 | August 8, 2009 |

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The Morning After

Syed Zain Al-mahmood
Water logging causes untold suffering for lower and middle income people.

On the night of July 27, 35-year-old executive Riyad Amin went to bed as usual after carefully placing his shiny new Toyota Corolla in the parking lot in front of his apartment. He woke in the wee hours of the morning, and gripped by a sense of foreboding, rushed to the window. His favourite car was submerged in water up to its windows -- overnight rain had flooded the parking area and the road beyond.

“I was completely helpless,” says Riyad. “I knew the interior would be ruined. I also knew I couldn't get the car out until the water receded. I couldn't go to work. I just sat and stared at the dirty brown flood.”

Millions of Dhaka city dwellers were left staring in dismay at the deluge last week as record rainfall caused severe waterlogging in large parts of the city. With water knee deep on many streets, business was disrupted and the transport system ground to a halt.

Naima Sultana, resident of the Mouchak area, was trying to get to a job interview. She managed to persuade a rickshaw to take her after promising an exorbitant sum. But before she could get far, one of the rear wheels of the vehicle landed in a pothole and she was flung headlong into the dirty brown water.

“It was the worst day of my life,” recalls Naima. “Is this what we pay taxes for? Is it so hard to build a drainage system that works?

Open manholes and potholes are a constant menace on submerged roads.

As Dhaka took on the look of Venice minus the gondolas, and news channels reported the death of at least seven people from flood-related incidents, the spotlight was once again on the city's inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure.

Dhaka, located as it is on the floodplains of the Meghna-Brahmaputra, never enjoyed a totally satisfactory drainage system. But the situation has been compounded by rapid and unplanned urbanisation over the last few decades. Dhaka is surrounded by rivers -- the Buriganga to the South, Balu to the east; Tongi Khal to the north and Turag to the west. The drainage of the city mainly depends on the connectivity with these rivers and the levels of water in them at any given time of year.

The urban drainage system consists of a complex network of drains -- both open and closed. The roadside drains flow into bigger drains or sewers which in turn empty into large canals, locally known as Khal. The major drainage canals or Khals in the City are Dholai Khal, Jerani Khal, Segunbagicha Khal and Begunbari Khal. These canals collect storm water runoff and flow into the peripheral rivers. Dhaka city is protected by a flood protection embankment known as the Buckland Flood Protection Embankment. The embankment has sluice gates through which the Khals drain into the surrounding rivers.

Experts say the urban drainage network serves less than half the city. According to Wasa sources, the city has 150 square kilometers of storm drains where it needs at least 260 sq km to collect runoff from heavy showers. Many areas have no drains to speak of, and rain water simply flows overland into adjacent watercourses or into low areas, causing severe waterlogging. The city used to have many catchments or lakes (sometimes known as jheel) which held the rain water. But the Jheels have gradually been filled up to make way for construction, further aggravating the flooding.

Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Dwasa) are the agency responsible for managing the drainage systems of Dhaka City. In a study commissioned by Wasa in 1993, the international development consultant Mott MacDonald identified numerous deficiencies in the system. These include:

* unplanned urbanisation, expansion of the urban areas, increases in built-up areas and metal roads;
* filling of low-lying areas to construct buildings, with little or no provision for drainage.
* blockage of the main drainage systems of the urban area (khals) by unauthorised constructions;
* insufficient storm sewers constructed in the extensions to the urban area;
* lack of maintenance to the drainage system;
* lack of coordination among the different agencies engaged in the development works;
* solid waste disposal in the storm sewer.

As commuters and school going children were marooned at home or stuck on the submerged roads, the talk shows were filled with analysts who blamed various flaws in the system, and advanced sundry solutions.

Meteorologists have hastened to point out that the 333 mm rainfall in 24 hours was a once-in-50-years event, and with such a downpour, any modern city would struggle to cope. But environmentalists and urban planning experts stress that with climate change driving extreme weather patterns, Dhaka must prepare for worse flooding in the future. Through the uproar, one thing stands out: Dhaka, a mega city of 12 million, has no master plan for urban water management, and little or no coordination among different government agencies.

The flooding exposed the flaws in Dhaka's storm drainage system. Photo: Marland D. Miller

“Since a 2004 study by Wasa, nothing much has been done,” says SM Mahbubur Rahman, Head of Water Resource Planning Division of the Institute of Water Modeling. “A World Bank study is in the pipeline. But it is vitally important to carry out a thorough study and prepare a master plan. Without it, there can be no proper coordination.”

Experts say unplanned urbanisation has led to an explosion of built-up areas and accelerated the speed of rain water runoff. The storm sewers are easily overwhelmed by heavy rainfall as witnessed last week. Many of the sewers are clogged by dumping of solid waste, with polythene bags a major problem.

“In most mega cities, storm sewers are separate from waste disposal conduits,” says Engineer Jahangir Alam, an urban planning expert. “Since the rains are seasonal in Bangladesh, waste matter hardens and blocks the drain during winter. When the rain comes, the choked sewers simply cannot cope.”

Many of the Khals, vital arteries for the drainage of storm water, have been encroached and even totally blocked by roads and buildings. Many observers blame housing and land development companies for large scale encroachment.

“When I hear of river view projects, I am concerned that they may be encroaching on natural water bodies,” says Syed Rizwana Hasan of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela). “Many real estate companies have not been as responsible as they should have been.”

Aminul Karim Siddique, executive director of Amin Mohammad Lands Development Ltd agrees, but claims his company has been careful to obey government rules.

“It is true we have a development project in Ashulia,” says Siddique. “But we have been very careful to start plotting 56 feet away from the natural canal, as per government regulations. We have also been careful to preserve the natural drainage system.”

It is not only private developers who are to blame. The Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) and other government agencies have squeezed many of the Khals by creating box culverts.

The frequent waterlogging in the commercially important Motijheel area is a prime example of the bottleneck caused by box culverts. Since Begunbari canal was narrowed and a large water body next to Bangladesh Bank in Motijheel was filled up, flooding in Motijheel C/A has become a common occurrence after a downpour. The large water body has almost disappeared due to unplanned urbanisation after a box culvert was built on Segunbagicha canal in 1992.

This is the main reason behind the waterlogging in Fakirapool, Motijheel and Arambagh areas, say observers. Similar scenarios exist in other parts of the city.

Many experts have blamed lack of coordination between various agencies. “The Wasa maintains the sewers, but the surface drains fall into the jurisdiction of the DCC,” says SM Mahbubur Rahman. “The Deputy Commissioner's office is responsible for preventing encroachment of canals while the Water Development Board operates the sluice gates through which the canals drain. Unless there is proper coordination between these agencies, problems are bound to occur.”

The lack of a master plan is also evident in the way many development projects seem to be exacerbating the drainage problem. The DND (Dhaka-Naryangonj-Demra) project was created on the outskirts of Dhaka with an eye to increasing agricultural production. Rapid urbanisation has made the agricultural aims obsolete, but the unplanned settlements that have sprung up centering on the DND project are prone to severe waterlogging.

The absence of a strategic plan forces city planners to resort to short term measures. But even these, if executed vigorously, could help alleviate the suffering of Dhaka dwellers.

“The concerned authority like DCC, RAJUK, BWDB, BIWTA and DC's office will have to establish “right-of-way” over the natural drainage system and ensure that the drainage system is free from any obstruction, blocking, or encroachment,” says Engineer Jahangir Alam.

Other routine measures, often neglected, would include cleaning of sewerage lines, and prevention of solid waste disposal. Dhaka Wasa could connect extra drainage lines to box culverts to reduce waterlogging in certain areas. Many experts have also suggested creation of “retarding ponds” which could hold rain water and slow down the runoff. Dredging the rivers on Dhaka's periphery is also necessary to maintain the integrity of the natural drainage system.

Long suffering city dwellers have almost given up hope that effective measures will be taken by the government any time soon. Riyad Amin of Khilkhet strikes a philosophical note.

“Six hours of rain did this. I wonder what would happen if the rain continued for another six. I guess we really should be thankful.”



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