Thursday the 7th of June, it rained 109 mm in Dhaka. Leaving a literary event at the Sheraton I sought a ride home with a friend. Since the entrance was flooded, we agreed to cross over to the other side where his car would pick us up.
We took off our shoes and I led the way, stepping into the murky water. But I miscalculated the depth and tumbled in, getting wet up to my waist. I skinned my knee but managed to keep my shoes dry. Retreating, we chose the prudent course, walking along the footpath towards the intersection. We crossed there, stepping in knee-deep water in front of buses and cars forced to slow down.
The traffic barely crawled. Making it only to Karwan Bazaar by 11:30 p.m., it became clear it would be faster to walk to my home in Nakhalpara. On the way, I spied stalled buses and cars being pushed by boys and men. Near Bijoy Shoroni, the footpath was again flooded. I stepped gingerly into the water, remembering that not so long ago there were uncovered manholes in the vicinity. I would read later that at least three people fell into manholes that night. When I went to bed, past midnight, I was thankful that my apartment was above water. Thousands of others, with water above their floors, are of course not so lucky.
The monsoons have only begun. What will the rest of the season be like for the hapless citizens of Dhaka?
Jolaboddhota. Waterlogging is today a word linked to the city as inextricably as janjot, chintaikari, and oggan party. There is no mystery behind Dhaka's flooding. When rain pours down, it must drain. The city's drainage sewers are often blocked. Box culverts compound the problem. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the filling up of the city's canal system.
Nature creates integrated ecosystems with rivers and wetlands washing out to sea. In times past, we built khals for navigation and drainage. That balance, always a delicate act in this region, is now gone.
I grew up in a house, now history, in Bangla Motors. Like much of the city, it was on low lying land. Even to raise it above the original level, my father cut a pond right in back. In the monsoon, the pond rose and flowed into the doba behind the house. The water found its way through other channels and crossed under Mymensingh Road into the Begunbari canal that lies behind today's Sonargaon Hotel. I remember catching fish in water that sometimes came nearly to the verandah.
The canals and wetlands were the city's natural drainage system. In the old town, Dholai Khal was vital. In the newer parts of the city, the Begunbari, Mohakhali, and Rampura khals played a similar role.
Today water is locked into a few so-called lakes. Instead of an intricate network of water, we have an extensive mesh of money: the outcome of the market, greasy palms, and goondafied politics. As land prices skyrocket, people with ability buy up or grab wetlands, developers rush in, and government colludes. Landowners amass fortunes, developers make millions selling apartments and commercial property, bureaucrats stuff their pockets, and even workers at the bottom fill their sunken stomachs with one more day of kamlagiri.
Left to themselves, humans focus on today — many on today's survival, others on today's get rich opportunity. What will happen tomorrow? When the next big flood strikes? When global warming raises the ocean level and the lower delta goes under? Where will the water in Dhaka go? By filling the canals, we have killed the future of the city. Unless we can take drastic action — and soon – there may be no future for Dhaka.
Last year on a road trip across North America I stopped in New Orleans. Located in the lower Mississippi delta, this city sits below sea level. Levees were built to protect populated areas, and canals provided drainage. Unfortunately the levees were not built to withstand a serious hurricane-provoked flood, and to make matters worse, the government built a canal straight down to the Gulf of Mexico to assist business. This canal, the MRGO, allows heavier ships direct access to the Port of New Orleans.
Along came Katrina, the worst hurricane to hit the city since Camile in 1969. The levees collapsed at vital points. Water came rushing up the MRGO, possibly helping to explode one of the levees. Large parts of the city went under water. Neighborhoods where poor and working class people lived — mostly black in New Orleans and white in St Bernard Parish — were flooded.
On my visit just before the one-year anniversary of Katrina, the writer Kalamu Ya Salaam who grew up in the Ninth Ward drove me around. While much of the debris had been removed, hundreds of houses lay wrecked. Thousands more stood abandoned. Though intact on the outside, the flood had destroyed the insides. We saw some people trying to rebuild. A heroic effort, mostly relying on their own resources. Those without such resources, without the ability to rebuild and make a living at the same time, now lived elsewhere. Kalamu pointed to houses where he and his relatives lived decades ago. Such areas would soon be reclaimed by nature. At the edge of the neighborhood we walked up an embankment to view what remains of wetlands that were once pervasive. He remembered fishing there as a kid. Now they were waterlogged pools of stagnant water.
It has happened before, right here in Bengal, to another capital city.
The city of Gaur, across the border today, was the capital of Bengal from around 1450 to 1565 AD. It is reported to have been one of the largest medieval cities in the Indian subcontinent, a densely populated, prosperous settlement. Today its remains have long been strangled by vegetation.
When Gaur died, upper Bengal was in the cross hairs of the Mughal-Pathan rivalry and gripped by predatory incursions from Sher Shah, Orissa, and the Portuguese. But war only triggered the collapse. According to Banglapedia:
"Such continuous anarchy resulted in the neglect of the maintenance of the overcrowded city. The canals linking the lagoon and the Ganges and serving as the lifeline of the city had to be properly maintained. In 1575, Vincent Le Blanc saw waterlogging in parts of the city, which would suggest that the canals were not properly maintained. This resulted in the outbreak of a severe plague, which carried away three hundred persons per day…. It is possible that the connection between the Mahananda and the Ganges through the canals of the city had snapped due to lack of maintenance as much as due to the beginning of the westward movement of the Ganges."
When Dhaka goes under water, the poor living on low lying land are hit the hardest. The better off mostly live higher. But even if the water does not rise high enough to damage raised homes, waterlogging breeds disease. An epidemic can devastate an entire city. The wealthy may have better access to medical care and greater immunity from well-fed bodies. But when catastrophe strikes, it will not be sufficient.
(This article appeared in the Star Weekend Magazine on Friday, June 15, 2007)