Like in the previous years, the capital was caught in the web of the water-logging scourge once again on October 1. It followed a bout of one-and-half-hour downpour.
Invariably, on that very day the city residents, like in the past, heard about the remedies to this chronic problem telecast in the late night sessions of the electronic media. Urban experts and drainage specialists, along with persons from different government entities, were there proposing measures to deal with Dhaka's decades-long water-logging. The print media caught up with the discourses the following morning.
This has been going on year in and year out. Most of the Dhaka-dwellers find themselves inured to these ritualistic exercises. In fact, they are helpless amid the cancerous growth of the water-logging menace. With a few stretches in the wildly growing city becoming tolerably free of the scourge, newer areas --- mainly roads and neighbourhood alleys, are being swamped by stagnant rainwater. To the fatalists, the city residents are perhaps set to remain stuck in this ordeal for an indefinite period.
The dreadful water-logging has turned plainly unbearable. Now virtually at their tethers' end, people may have begun defining the spectacle of the ongoing remedial steps by using an English idiom --- 'carrying coals to Newcastle'. It means doing something fruitless repeatedly.
The renewed burst of activities to free Dhaka of water-logging began in 2009. The Dhaka WASA (Water Supply and Sewerage Authority) was given the responsibility. In the last 10 years till 2019 it spent a mindboggling amount of money on the task. During the time-span of one decade, water-logging continued to plague the city almost every year. True, the government entity embarked on a number of projects in earnest. Most of them had ended up in shambolic exercises.
Ironically, with the agency very much engaged in their different complicated segments of the job, Dhaka began experiencing newer areas afflicted with water-logging after monsoon rains. The areas, including many relatively higher ones, have just kept expanding with every passing year.
The chief bottleneck to the flushing out of Dhaka's rainwater has long been singled out as faulty and half-heartedly built drains and their maintenance. According to many urban experts, the upkeep is the most vital aspect of keeping the different types of drains operative. The responsibility for facilitating stagnant rainwater to flow into designated areas including the nearby rivers rests with three agencies. Apart from WASA, the two others are Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) and Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC). However, the largest share of the job rests with Dhaka WASA.
Apart from constructing and maintaining drains, the entity has been tasked with cleaning up the 26 in-city canals, by freeing them of encroachers and dumping of garbage. According to reliable sources, WASA has reportedly re-excavated and cleaned up 19 out of 26 canals last year on government funds. The canals included Dolaikhal, Sutikhola canal, two canals at Kalyanpur, the Roopnagar main canal, Begunbari canal, Kalshi canal and Mohammadpur's Ramchandrapur canal.
To the great woes of the residents living near the 19 canals, many of the dead and dysfunctional water channels still remain choked with garbage. They include Jatrabari's Devdolaikhal and Sutikhola canal, as well as the Roopnagar canal and the Kalshi canal adjacent to the Journalists' Colony at Mirpur. The canals apart, WASA runs deep concrete drains with a length of 385 kilometres and 10 kms of box-culverts. Besides, the length of the canals under its supervision comes to 80 kilometres. Dhaka WASA also runs pump stations for release of rainwater.
A section of urban experts have opposed from the start the construction of the WASA box-culverts. They cited the difficulty in keeping these drains free of garbage. Dhaka WASA has a grand plan to build a network of storm-water drainage system for the city. As has been seen lately, just one-third of the 360-square kilometre WASA service area is covered by this drainage.
The two city corporations are said to be hamstrung by fund shortages. But they are burdened with a number of critical responsibilities. There are drains having a length of over 2000km under the two corporations. They include underground pipeline for water flushing with a length of about 1,200km. Of the total length, 500km operates under DSCC, with the rest run by DNCC. Both the corporations have in place 18km of surface drains.
The woes of Dhaka linked to the disappearance of its around 60 canals that had covered the whole city for four decades up to the 1960s began in that period. Re-excavated by the British government-appointed town planner Prof Patrick Geddes in 1917 as part of the first Master Plan for Dhaka, the canals had greatly helped in the flow of the city's floodwater into its surrounding rivers. Prof Geddes dug a number of new canals; all of them had later proved integral to the city's landscape for a long time. Unlike many South Asian cities, Dhaka remained a flood-free urban centre in the pre- and post-British period. Its canals played a great role in keeping Dhaka free of the ordeals of water-logging also.
As being viewed by today's urban development experts, a nightmarish twilight swooped down on Dhaka the day the first basket of garbage or earth was emptied into one of its still-magnificent canals. The latter-day phase of a Dhaka submerged with monsoon rainwater had literally begun with that ominous basket.
Although there have been endless talks about restoring the canals to their early glory and operational capability, it emerges as a herculean task. With some of them lost to powerful encroachers for good, putting into operation Dhaka's proverbial canals had better be consigned to the recess of absurdity. Bluntly speaking, it's a pipedream. What might emerge as fully pragmatic is coordination between the agencies engaged in the grand project of freeing the capital of water-logging.
Moreover, time-befitting and advanced work methods coupled with a vision on the part of policymakers should also be brought into focus. One should keep in mind that Dhaka is expanding fast. And with the process continuing, the ferocity of water-logging in the city is set to turn unwieldy.