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A big portion of Dhaka street network becomes submerged shortly after an incessant rain. How do you define Dhaka’s drainage system?

Dhaka’s drainage system was developed in natural process with a vast network on internal canals. The canals were connected to the surrounding river system. The lowlands on the outskirts of Dhaka worked as rain water reservoir during the monsoons.

But Dhaka has become a mega city with a huge size of population. Artificial drainage components with concrete drain, box culvert, sluice gate and pump station have taken the place of the natural system. A modern city operates drainage networks in a combination of natural and artificial systems. Dhaka fails to do it despite it had the scope. We have destroyed our natural drainage system and thus become dependent on artificial solutions. The move turns dangerous and we all are now facing the music.

Is the situation caused only for failure in protection of canals?

Dhaka has not been managed under a comprehensive development plan. As a result, we have damaged the natural drainage system as the waterbodies are disappearing fast. We have filled the low lands and constructed roads, houses, factories and residences.

The natural drainage system is disappearing. Does the artificial system we have developed work properly?

There should be 20-25 per cent green coverage and 10-15 per cent wetlands of a city area. The arrangement supports natural process of water discharge and retention at underground reservoirs. If concrete establishments cover 30-50 per cent of a city land, it will support 30-35 per cent surface runoff of the total rainfalls.

In case concrete covers 75 per cent of the city land, surface runoff will surplus 60 per cent of total rainfalls.

Bangladesh Institute of Planners conducted a study in 2019 that says concrete covers more than 80 per cent of Dhaka land with only five per cent wetland and 10 per cent green coverage. It means that natural drainage facilities in Dhaka are minimal. On the other hand, the artificial drainage facilities are not enough in the city. That is why the monsoon time runoff overflows the existing natural and artificial drainage network, causing water-logging.

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Damage to the natural system did not happened overnight. Is this possible to reclaim the encroached canals now?

Problems with ownership has caused encroachment of the canals. District administration owns the canals while maintenance and management of them are done by different other organisations. As a result, none of the authorities feel ownership over the canals. This is regretting that the canals are defined in different sizes in the Revisional Survey (RS) and Cadastral Survey (CS). According to High Court directives, the canals must be marked on the basis of CS map. Given the directives, any private ownership over the wetlands is illegal.

The government’s recent drives against encroachment and development plans are focusing on the conservation of the wetlands. If the moves continue, Dhaka’s canals would be reclaimed and their navigability will be restored, we hope.

Dhaka WASA had managed 26 canals for 33 years. Now the responsibility goes to the city corporations. Shouldn’t Dhaka WASA be held responsible for destroying the drainage system?

Dhaka Wasa failed to maintain the canals properly. The other concerned authorities too were responsible. In the previous years, Dhaka WASA spent huge amount of money in the name of drainage system development. But the organisation did not look after the canals sincerely. As a result, most of the canals become narrow due to encroachment. A particular authority may fail to serve on public interest or welfare. But the state has no scope to accept failure.

The two city corporations are given charge of the canals. What do you think about the new development?

We appreciate the decision in the view of urban planning. For a success, we suggest for handing over the charge of all necessary components including the existing manpower and facilities of Dhaka WASA’s drainage circle to the city corporations.

City corporations deal with different citizen services. Do you think that the new charge of canals would overburden the city authorities?

This is true that the city corporations are not capable of managing the canals along with drainage systems. But there is hope that city corporations could initiate maintenance of the wetlands in collaboration with the local ward councils and communities. This could make conservation of the canals possible.

Bangladesh Water Development Board and some other organisations are involved in rain water discharge. Do you think that the responsibilities should be shouldered by the city corporations too?

Regarding rain water discharge, there should be a mega plan to coordinate the natural and artificial ways of water management in and around the city. I think the city corporations should be responsible solely for designing and implementing the mega plan.

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Should the city corporations give priority to rain water discharging?

As the short-term solution, the city corporations should unblock the drainage network for free-discharge of rain water, so that better use of natural-artificial drainage system can be ensured. Management of solid waste needs to be upgraded so that blockings cannot make the system dysfunctional. Besides, restoration of the canals is a must. For long-term remedy, a nature-based master plan for the drainage system is crucial. We should consider the canals not only as part of drainage system but also as open space as well as means of communications and entertainment.

How can the local community involve in rain water discharge?

The city corporations can easily engage local community to keep the drainage lines and box culverts functioning. The corporations run regional offices at grassroots level. However, public representation at the local government system becomes weaker. There are allegations that many elected representatives endorse encroachment and pollution of the wetlands. There is still a big question that whether the controversial public representatives could organise a group of all-walks of citizen or not.

Will there be any remedy from water-logging after the change of custodianship?

Sincerity and determination of the two city corporations' mayors while taking charge of the Dhaka city drainage maintenance makes us hopeful. Soon after taking the charge, they led commendable drives in unblocking some canals and box culverts. But citizens need to think in pragmatic way. The present day traffic congestion and water-logging are the collective outcome of handling the city affairs in an uncontrolled and unguarded manner. Actually there is no magic solution for the deep-rooted problems.

Besides encroachment, waste dumping at the waterbodies is another concerning issue. Should the waste dumpers get punished?

The High Court has declared all the wetlands of the country as ‘living entity’. Canals and waterbodies are the integral parts of the river systems. The Environment Act 1994 and the Wetlands Conservation Act 2000 prohibit encroachment of the wetlands.

The High Court directed authorities concerned to define the private ponds in the urban areas as the natural wetlands. Recently, the National River Conservation Commission Act 2000 has been drafted. The draft has provisions 10 years maximum of imprisonment and Tk 50 million fines for grabbing or polluting natural wetlands.

In reality, only fining the culprits other than their imprisonment hardly make conservation of the wetlands possible.

Thank you so much

Thank you too

*This report appeared in Prothom Alo print edition, and has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman

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