- A study by the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, or BIP, says the capital has lost 36% of its water bodies since 2010.
- Dhaka city has experienced water scarcity during dry months, which puts a strain on firefighters as they battle large fire; during monsoon months, the city experiences regular waterlogging as water retention points fill up.
- The disappearance of water bodies has created multifaceted problems like rising water levels, airborne disease, and mosquito-related diseases.
- In 2000, the government passed the Natural Water Reservoir Conservation Act, which mandates that natural water bodies be kept intact.
On April 4, a large fire gutted thousands of shops at a popular clothing market named Banga Bazar in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Firefighters complained of water scarcity as a big barrier to controlling the fire.
Around 10 days later, there was another massive fire in one of Dhaka’s crowded markets. Complaints from firefighters were the same — water scarcity.
“The biggest challenge in Dhaka when a fire incident occurs is water availability. If we don’t get an adequate amount of water supply on time, it has become a Herculean task to bring the fire under control,” Brig. Gen. Md. Main Uddin, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defense, told Mongabay.
He said even the capital has no fire hydrants on the street. “As water is the key to dousing fire, we faced problems in almost every incident. We cannot bring any fire under control only through the water we carry with us. So lakes, ponds and other water bodies should be preserved at any cost; otherwise, our challenges will be tougher day by day as the fire incidents are on the rise.”
According to FSCD data, there were 12,182 fires in 2009 and this number swelled to 24,102 in 2022 — which means almost double the number of fire incidents across the country.
These two are not just isolated incidents; rather the fire has become a common phenomenon in the megacity for the last couple of years with the vanishing of water bodies in Dhaka.
Firefighters and urban planners said water is key to bringing any fire under control, and in many cases this water scarcity worsened the situation as fires have grown out of control soon after they ensued.
Waterlogging: A perennial problem
Apart from the water scarcity crisis for firefighters, waterlogging has also become a regular phenomenon for the capital’s residents. A typical scenario in Dhaka is that an hour of heavy monsoon rainfall nearly collapses the drainage system.
Experts said historically, a major part of Dhaka’s drainage system was natural, consisting of canals, rivers and lakes that helped reroute extra water out of the city as those water bodies acted as natural flood plains, storm sewers, water retention areas and surface water bodies to keep flood waters in check and allow water to percolate into the ground.
They said preserving water bodies like ponds, lakes, canals and rivers surrounding the capital was the only way to solve this crucial problem.
A 2015 World Bank report said the potential damage from waterlogging for Dhaka between 2014 and 2050, even without climate change, would be BDT 110 billion (about $1 billion); in a changing climate with more intense rainfall, the loss would be BDT 1.39 trillion (about $13 billion) between 2014 and 2050, according to the report.
Urban planners said that water bodies are supposed to cover 12-15% of the area in Dhaka considering its population, but the coverage in central Dhaka area today is only around 5%.
Adil Mohammad Khan, former general secretary of BIP, said that apart from individuals and business groups, even government agencies are filling up Dhaka’s water bodies.
The recently filled-up 11 acres of a 53-acre water retention area of the capital’s Gabtoli neighborhood for a four-story building by Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) for a tissue culture laboratory is one example.
“The problem is multifaceted. It is not only firefighting and waterlogging but also the capital’s biodiversity. The ecological condition of the capital is almost destroyed,” Adil said, adding that temperatures are rising in Dhaka city and available water is the most effective way to pacify the mercury rise.
A 2018 study from the first National Conference on Water Resources Engineering found that almost half of the wetland areas were converted into other land uses from 1988-2016.
It found that in 1988, a total of 43.08% of areas were under the wetland category; that number fell to 26.97% in 2002 and 12.13% in 2016.
“The decreasing rate of wetlands is 71.84% between these 28 years.”
According to the study, “For this significant reduction of wetlands, the microclimate of Dhaka city has experienced warming, urban heat island effect concisely. Habitats of diversified flora and fauna have [been] destroyed.”
Iqbal Habib, joint secretary of the civic environmental group Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, said water bodies have fourfold benefits in any city.
He said water bodies served as a water reservoir and they recharged groundwater while keeping biodiversity healthy. “But diminishing the water bodies puts the public health at risk, and that’s why we see the rise of waterborne and airborne diseases, including mosquito-borne diseases.”
Habib, a renowned town planner, also said Dhaka was once known as the Venice of Bangladesh due to its vast water connectivity, but over the years, that connectivity has been lost too.
“The problem is that we have enough laws, but there is no implementation or low implementation.”
The recently published Detailed Area Plan-2022 by the urban development agency Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) marked a total of 3,464 ponds in its jurisdiction spanning 1,528 square-kilometers (590 square miles).
Of them, around 205 ponds are in the central Dhaka region.
Rajuk chairman Anisur Rahman Miah said the Natural Water Reservoir Conservation Act of 2000 stipulates that even privately owned ponds cannot be filled, and that’s why Rajuk was taking initiatives in this regard.
Anisur said they would also request different organizations to protect their ponds and water bodies.
However, he added that the group has taken up a number of new projects where lakes and water bodies were given the highest priority.
Banner images: Communters in Dhaka during the monsoon when the main street submerged with a moderate rainfall in 2021. Image by Prabir Das.
Climate and disaster resilience of greater Dhaka area: A micro level analysis. (2015). Retrieved from The World Bank website: https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/481741467990959868/pdf/101066-NWP-PUBLIC-disclose-on-11-23-15-Box393257B.pdf
Ferdous, J & Rahman. T. U. (2018). Estimation of the changes in wetlands of Dhaka city from Landsat images. Proceedings of the 1st National Conference on Water Resources Engineering (NCWRE). CUET, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330506127_ESTIMATION_OF_THE_CHANGES_IN_WETLANDS_OF_DHAKA_CITY_FROM_LANDSAT_IMAGES
Dewan. A., Kiselev. G., Botje, D., Mahmud, G.I., Bhuian. M. H., and Hasan, Q. K. (2021). Surface urban heat island intensity in five major cities of Bangladesh: Patterns, drivers and trends. Sustainable Cities and Society. V.71. Elsevier. doi:10.1016/j.scs.2021.102926