The earliest memory I have of my hometown, Dhaka, is the vast river near my grandparents’ home in the old part of the city. The Buriganga teemed with life back then, with huge sailboats, carrying everything from bales of jute to people, plying on the seemingly edgeless river. Its banks were dotted with undulating dinghy boats, waiting for passengers. You could hear the waves and the wind. Sometimes, you could see a ‘shushuk’ (river dolphin) or two swimming under the clear water. The hustle-bustle along the Buriganga is still there, but the river is not the same anymore.
Nearly two decades later when I returned to Bangladesh to work after years of living abroad (always near the sea or a river somewhere), my first major reporting assignment was covering the nationwide floods of 1998 that had also affected the capital city. Dhaka was usually spared from flooding by six surrounding rivers and a network of interconnecting lakes and canals that helped drain off the monsoon rains. But that year, most parts of the city, including the central business district, upscale residential areas and the international airport built on higher ground, were inundated.
As I traversed the flooded city on makeshift rafts, I saw that the rivers that had once protected the city had shrunk into murky water bodies, resembling canals. The cargo boats with the colourful sails were long gone, replaced by noisy motorized ones. Freshwater creatures, too, had abandoned the polluted rivers. And the city’s once-famed canals that had earned Dhaka the nickname of “Venice of the East” had mostly disappeared.
While talking to experts, I discovered that rapid urbanization and fast-track industrialization, more than natural causes, were being blamed for the state of Dhaka’s rivers. The riverbanks were ‘grabbed’ (filled up with sand and refuse) to build factories and new housing estates, and the riverbeds were piled up with industrial wastes, sewerage, and concrete debris from reconstruction of the 400-year-old city. Embankments built to protect its low-lying areas were breached or built upon in places.
There was a lot of talk about reclaiming the canals and riverbanks from encroachers, clearing the riverbeds, and repairing the flood-protection barriers. But most of the buzz was soon lost till floods hit the city again in 2004
. This time, the government took some effective measures, namely repairing or constructing modern drainage systems, culverts and sluice gates, and ensuring better coordination among the various water and city authorities to deter floods.
Parts of Dhaka still get inundated intermittently during the monsoon (June-October), mainly due to waterlogging caused by blocked culverts and storm drains, and continued river ‘grabbing’ despite stringent laws. But the city hasn’t witnessed widespread flooding on the scale of the 1998 and 2004 deluges.
As I continued my career in environmental journalism and development communication around the country, I noticed a common phenomenon linking our natural disasters to water. Be it floods, droughts, river erosion, tidal waves, rising sea levels and salination, or arsenic-contaminated ground water. As a child, I would often hear foreigners describe my country as: “Bangladesh, people always dying in floods and cyclones”. Now, it gives me great pleasure to report on how we manage to control and mitigate our water-related problems with concrete steps and policies. We are yet to completely stop pollution and encroachment of our water bodies, but very few lives are lost these days in floods and cyclones.