A city does not die. It is murdered. It is consumed by flames of greed. It is gradually killed by its thankless habitants in the name of development.
The story of Dhaka is no different. We, the ungrateful denizens of Dhaka, are strangling our dear habitat to death in a suicidal manner, shrinking its breathing spaces and sucking its lifeblood - its rivers, canals and other water bodies.
Many significant civilisations whose accomplishments still remaining amazing to this modern day, have been rendered extinct due to environmental or climatological degradation. The staggering ancient Maya civilization, for example, is famous for devising the first complete writing system, the finest elevated roads, a sophisticated calendar and astronomy. But, nothing could save it from extinction. There are many theories behind the fall of the civilization. Overpopulation and overuse of the land and water resources and prolonged drought could have been key factors behind the collapse of the Maya, the civilization that existed in the region of present-day Mexico and Central America from 2600 BC till the 16th century. Most recently, a group of researchers from Arizona State University studied the environmental conditions of when the Mayans abandoned the area and they found ‘severe reductions in rainfall leading towards prolonged drought and was exacerbated by rapid rate of deforestation.’
Mohenjo Daro, one of world's earliest ‘modern’ cities which lasted between 2500 and 1900 BC in present-day Pakistan’s Sindh, is another shocking example. They had a modern city with big bathing pools, sanitation and central sewerage systems. Unfortunately, nothing could sustain their habitat. Environmental and climatological changes forced them to abandon their lovely city.
If compared, the context, the place and the time -- everything of the aforementioned extinct civilizations are completely different from today’s Dhaka. But, our actions, attitudes and exploitation of nature are no different. And it may not be too far away that we find ourselves en route the same destiny.
Once Dhaka had attracted the sophisticated Mughal rulers, only because it had a healthy and strategic position, thanks to an intensive network of rivers and canals. It has hosted many dynasties, descendants and their subsequent generations. Right now the city is offering shelter to more than 20 million people. In return, thanklessly we have destroyed its lifelines, polluted and filled up each and every one of its rivers and canals, making it nothing but a death-trap. What was once a green city, replete with soothing waterways and natural beauty, is now a chaotic jungle of people and concrete.
The city is encircled and protected by four rivers, almost like a divine barrier. A few years ago, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) identified 138 sources of pollution in these four rivers. The Buriganga alone is polluted from 53 sources while another crucial river Turag is being polluted from 15 sources. The number is on a steady rise.
The pollution data of the Buriganga is even more frightening. Three years ago, Bangladesh’s environment department estimated that 60,000 cumecs (cubic metre per second) of toxic water was emitted into the Buriganga water. Each of the factories in the area, according to Keraniganj Washing Owners Association, use 25-30 thousands of litres of water per day. As per the calculations, 1.8 million litres of toxic water was discharged into the Buriganga from the area alone. In addition, households on the banks discharge 900 cumecs untreated wastewater into the Buriganga every day.
Another World Bank study finds that four major rivers near Dhaka - Buriganga, Shitalakhya, Turag and Balu - receive 1.5 million cubic metres of wastewater every day from 7,000 industrial units in surrounding areas and another 500,000 cubic meters from other sources (Reuters). The rivers have already been uninhabitable for aquatic creatures.
The influx of citizens, uninitiated in the ways of city living, 'amateur citizenry', and unplanned infrastructure-based development has already taken a huge toll.
The over 400-year-old city is now running out of water, especially fresh water. Fire safety has turned into a big crisis for the city dwellers.
Dhaka is now a city of tragedies. As per the Fire Service and Civil Defense, in the first three months of this year, the city dwellers witnessed 234 fire incidents meaning nearly three incidents a day. A many as 98 people died in just two incidents in February and March of this year (Prothom Alo, 3 April 2019). Another incident in 2010 in Nimtali took 124 lives.
Other statistics show in 12 months of 2016, nearly 4,000 fire incidents took place in Dhaka city.
There is more. According to Rajdhani Unnyan Katripakkha (RAJUK), ‘80 per cent of the capital's buildings lacks proper approval’. Last month, the experts warned that ‘violation of building codes and defiance of safety issues during construction of high-rises have exposed around 18 million people in and around the capital to fires and earthquakes’ (31 March 2019).
"With so many vulnerable buildings in the capital, I fear that between 100,000 and 150,000 people may be killed if a strong earthquake hits Dhaka," observed construction and earthquake expert professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury.
Dhaka has ranked fifth among the world’s cities with the worst air quality. The level of air pollution, in the AirVisual Index published in February this year, is classified as ‘hazardous.’
The sound level in Dhaka city is nearly two times higher than the standard. It is good enough to make a person deaf.
Dhaka is just a prototype. The other cities which are following the footsteps of the Dhaka-style development have to face the same consequences.
What’s done is done. Reality is life would not stop. But, it seems we yet to realise the gravity of the danger. It has been so late, but not over. It is high time to act.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Toriqul Islam is a journalist at Prothom Alo. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.