The three Ws and our impending existential crisis

Our memories are freaky!

Once a crisis hits a height, the issue recedes from our memory faster than it reached culmination. In this city of contingencies and crises, people soon get busy with the next upcoming issue to take it to yet another pinnacle and forget the imminent consequences of the bygone catastrophes. This has been the trend nowadays.

We have already wiped out reminiscence of the tragic death of 27 people in the fire at Banani’s FR Tower and the deadly Chawkbazar fire that claimed 71 lives. The fire safety issues are no more our concern. Like the fire plight, we have rubbed so many things out of our mind.

We often forget that we are living in a death trap with supplies of undrinkable water, unbreathable air, congested housing and a dying ecosystem. Dhaka has been consistently maintaining its top position on the worst city list for the last few years. Last month, the Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP) and Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) published two studies respectively on wetlands and the quality of drinking water in the city. The research reports awakened us and created hue and cry both in the virtual world and in real life. We have forgotten those issues too.

It is as if we really do not feel anything from our core. Only the climax and the moment matter to us. Neither the issues nor the suffering we go through matter. It’s only the results that count. Neither the reasons nor the causes are our concern. Once a problem surfaces, we love to quarrel, not to debate. When a crisis emerges, we resort to debate, not to reasoning. When the wake-up calls fade away, we ease back into our regular jobs.

‘Water is the driving force of all nature.’ Polymath of the Italian Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci assumed the truth more than five hundred years ago. After these hundreds of years, this remains a harsh reality for this over 400-year-old Dhaka city. The fate of the city is caught in tripartite threats as the existence of the city is threatened on land, on air and on water.

In a study, Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP) found that every year 5,757 acres of wetlands, which are keys to the survival of a city, were lost in Dhaka between 1999 and 2010. As many as 22,516 acres of the wetlands were completely grabbed in the comprehensive Detailed Area Plan (DAP) in Dhaka, which stands at 22 per cent of the total 100,337. Each year 165 acres of water bodies, 215 acres of water retention areas and 2,120 acres of flood flow zones were gobbled up (Prothom Alo, 23 April 2019). The researchers reached this conclusion through satellite images.

TIB shared findings of another study that states dwellers of Dhaka city have to burn natural gas worth Tk 3.32 billion every year just to render WASA’s water drinkable (Prothom Alo, 17 April 2019).

The aforementioned two studies were conducted on different issues in different contexts, but the topics are cohesive. If the natural reservoirs dry up, the underground water reservoirs and the major sources of water in the city go down impacting both the quantity and quality of the water. The state of Dhaka is no different.

The three Ws - Wetlands, Water and WASA - are the most crucial elements for the existence of the city and survival of its denizens. The Ws are dissimilar conceptually and contextually but are tightly interlinked and totally interdependent. The existence of this dying city completely depends on the three. The volume of the wetlands, the quality of the water and the efficiency of the water regulatory body are being compromised every day in the name of development. More the natural spaces are shrinking, and more existential crises are looming large.

Instead of healing up the wounds, we are in a frenzy of polluting, encroaching and filling up the city’s breathing spaces, the rivers, lakes, canals and wetlands in the city. And the natural resources which are unhurt, are on the verge of a precarious predicament too.

All this has already taken a huge toll on us.

Thanks to vanishing natural reservoirs and the once reputed and rich riverine transportation and ecology, the city dwellers are now running out of water. The authorities are failing to provide even water for daily use.

The cost of dead rivers and extinction of water bodies is so high here as the rivers are intractably linked to many things in riverine Bangladesh. If the rivers dry up, Bangladesh dehydrates. If the rivers are encroached, Bangladesh suffocates. So, fresh rivers and unpolluted, unhurt water bodies mean fresh water, fresh ecology and fresh environment and, to a large extent, a fresh country.

Once the city’s rivers lured many dynasties and their descendants to settle here for a healthy life. Now the dwellers of this city wait for the slightest chance to flee the suffocating, exhausted and ghoulish city even if it is just for a few hours or at least a day of respite.

Quoting a recent TIB study, another Prothom Alo report says half of the city dwellers under WASA’s jurisdiction do not get water as per requirement.  This is worse in the slums. Three-fourths of the slum dwellers are suffering from an insufficient amount of water.

TIB estimates that the city dwellers ‘burn more than 366 million cubic metre gas, which costs approximately Tk 3.32 billion a year. The amount is the one-fifth of the total gas supplied to Chattogram region and one-sixth of total demand in the region.’

When such reports crop up, we, the people, became worried and go crazy, while the authorities concerned immediately resort to rhetoric and come up with ad hoc remedies. With time, we forget the issues and resume normal life, back to business as usual.

The enthusiasm, the excitement and the hoaxes change and fade away with time. Only the problems and the crises remain constant, getting more and more drastic by the day.

We all know that nothing will change dramatically. It requires time. But the way we are acting and the way we are reacting will not bring about any solution. If we really can perceive the gravity of the imminent existential crisis at a personal level instead of listening to the crowds, the damage can be brought down to a minimum.

*Toriqul Islam is a journalist at Prothom Alo. He can be reached through [email protected].