Saving Dhaka wetlands - the city's lifeline

The recent news that Begunbari canal and Hatirjheel lake will soon be restored and rehabilitated is welcome news indeed. Local Government and Rural Development (LGRD) Adviser Anwarul Iqbal at an inter-ministerial meeting on April 5 said, "Principal consideration behind undertaking the ring road project was that it would act as a demarcation of Hatirjheel and Begunbari retention basin area. Ring road will be constructed on the existing land and the wetland will not suffer any shrinkage." The Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA) opined that the project must be an integrated one, which should comprising the entire length of Sonargaon canal and Hatirjheel wetland, including the stretch of the water body from the confluence of four canals behind Sonargaon Hotel and the entire Hatirjheel extending up to Banasree. "The development project must focus on enhancement of retention and drainage capacity of Hatirjheel and Sonargaon canal," he reiterated. "It also should institute a water purification plant for the said retention basin." He said the total Hatirjheel and Begunbari canal area has to be gazetted after demarcation.

Media reported that the government decided to cancel all allocations of the Hatirjheel area including ones given by the railway. In deserving cases government would also refund all payments made by allottees. It has also been reported that Federation of the Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) leaders went to see the LGRD advisor on 10th instant and requested him not to cancel the allotment given to them. They reportedly affirmed that despite the advisors negative response they will soon start construction of their head office complex at the allotted site since they got legal allotment and possession. This is perturbing news.

People expect socially responsible initiative from the apex business organisation. They should be the first to welcome the ecologically friendly decision and volunteer to assist the government. Similarly all other organisations and entrepreneurs who are affected should also welcome the decision. Because this decision to restore and protect the water bodies of Dhaka is beneficial to all inhabitants of Dhaka. Only relatively recently have we begun to understand the many ecological functions associated with water bodies and their significance to society. Water bodies were once considered useless, disease-ridden places that were to be avoided. We now realize that wetlands provide many benefits to society -- such as fish and wildlife habitats, natural water quality improvement, flood storage, shoreline erosion protection, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation. Protecting water bodies can, in turn, protect our health and safety by reducing flood damage and preserving water quality.

Wetlands can be thought of as "biological supermarkets." They produce great quantities of food that attract many animal species. The complex, dynamic feeding relationships among the organisms inhabiting wetland environments are referred to as food webs. Water bodies also provide the conditions needed for the removal of both nitrogen and phosphorus from surface water. Scientists also point out that atmospheric maintenance is an additional wetland function. Wetlands store carbon within their 'live and preserved' plant biomass instead of releasing it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas affecting global climates. Therefore, wetlands help moderate global climatic conditions. On the other hand, filling, clearing and draining wetlands release harmful carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Wetlands also play an important role in the hydrologic cycle. Wetlands can receive, store, and release water in various ways - physically through ground water and surface water, as well as biologically through transpiration by vegetation - and therefore function in this very important global cycle. Wetlands are valuable to us because they greatly influence the flow and quality of water. They help improve water quality, including that of drinking water, by intercepting surface runoff and removing or retaining inorganic nutrients, processing organic wastes, and reducing suspended sediments before they reach open water. For example, as the runoff water passes through wetlands, they retain or process excess nitrogen and phosphorus, decompose organic pollutants, and trap suspended sediments that would otherwise clog waterways and affect fish and amphibian egg development. In performing this filtering function, wetlands save us a great deal of money. In addition to improving water quality through filtering, some wetlands maintain stream flow during dry periods, while others replenish groundwater.

Fish and wildlife use wetlands to varying degrees depending upon the species involved. Some live only in wetlands for their entire lives; others require wetland habitat for at least part of their life cycle; still others use wetlands much less frequently, generally for feeding. In other words, for many species wetlands are primary habitats, meaning that these species depend on them for survival; for others, wetlands provide important seasonal habitats, where food, water, and cover are plentiful.

Because of their low topographic position relative to uplands, wetlands store and slowly release surface water, rain, groundwater and flood waters. Trees and other wetland vegetation also impede the movement of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over floodplains. This combined water storage and slowing action lowers flood heights and reduces erosion downstream and on adjacent lands. It also helps reduce floods and prevents water logging of agricultural lands. Wetlands within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable in this regard, counteracting the greatly increased rate and volume of surface-water runoff from pavement and buildings. Preserving and restoring wetlands can often provide the level of flood protection otherwise provided by expensive dredging operations and levees. Preservation of wetlands also results in many other benefits to society, such as the protection of ecologically significant fish and wildlife habitat. A good example of this is the city's water bodies, which once stored at least 30 days of floodwater and represented significant fish and wildlife habitat. They now hardly store 2/3 days of floodwater because most have been filled or encroached with substantial loss of fish and wildlife habitat, and alarmingly raising pollution levels.

Cost of flood damage is borne by taxpayers again and again as the flood waters come. It is therefore, cost effective to compensate owners and even encroachers within the area to restore natural wetlands. If one looks at the costs of compensation for these as opposed to the almost annual cost of flood protection and flood fighting within Dhaka city, one would realize that over mid term, one is doing a much greater service by retaining that water bodies rather than by continually paying for flood damage."

Therefore, in addition to their fish and wildlife values, wetlands reduce the likelihood of flood damage to homes, businesses, and crops. They also help control increases in the rate and volume of runoff in urban areas. This protection results in less monetary flood damage and related costs, as well as protection of human health, safety, and welfare. Water bodies provide many recreational, educational, and research opportunities which the city dwellers badly need. Nature-related recreation is the fastest growing activity of the tourism industry around the globe. In addition, artists and writers capture the beauty of wetlands on canvas and paper, or through cameras, and video and sound recorders. Others appreciate wetlands by hiking, boating, and other recreational activities. Almost everyone likes being on or near the water.

The Gujarat High Court delivered a judgment in August 2002 outlining policy for protecting urban wetlands in India. The judgment requires Government authorities to notify all lakes in the State and protect them. Further, it directs the authorities to take urgent measures to regenerate the water bodies, to remove encroachments from it and to rehabilitate the affected slum dwellers. The judgment also precipitates critical state policy decisions on water management. It requires the Government to constitute Water Resources Council headed by the Chief Minister "to oversee the program for protection, preservation and improvement of water bodies." The Government is also ordered to constitute a Water Resource Committee headed by the Chief Secretary to monitor the implementation of the Programme in a time bound manner. The High Court has again made clear that "The State as the trustee of all natural resources meant for public use, including lakes and ponds, is legally duty bound to protect them." If Governments were to internalise this truth alone, 'war over city lakes' -- between those concerned with Development and those bothered with the Environment -- would never had surfaced in the first place.

Bangladesh Government enacted "Natural Water Bodies Protection Act 2000", to rationalise the use of water bodies for development work as well for human settlements. According to this Act, the character of water bodies, meaning rivers, canals, ponds, or floodplains identified as water bodies in the master plans of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkha, Chattagram Unnayan Authority, Khulna Unnayan Authority, Rajshahi Unnayan Authority or in the master plans of any other Town Development Authority or in the master plans formulated under the laws establishing municipalities in division and district towns shall not be changed without approval of the concerned ministry. Additionally there are sectoral laws namely, The Canals Act 1864, The Irrigation Act 1876, The Forest Act 1927, The Protection and Conservation of Fish Act 1950, Bangladesh Environment Protection Act 1995, etc. Yet we often read newspaper reports about private parties grabbing land, floodplains, lakes and rivers in the country, particularly in and around Dhaka. It is now well known how rivers like the Buriganga, the Dhaleswari, the Turag, the Bangshi etc., have become victims of the land grabbers. Lakes at Dhanmondi, Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara and Uttara were not spared. Many canals of Dhaka city disappeared completely. Environmentalists and other activists have relentlessly been pressing for strict legal measures to protect and preserve water bodies throughout the country. This calls for enactment of a comprehensive law for the protection of wetlands of Bangladesh.

Dhaka was founded 400 years ago by the side of the Buriganga river The earliest available map shows Dhaka extending over an area of about 1.5 sq km near the junction of the Dholai Khal and Buriganga river. Large-scale urbanisation was initiated by the British in 1904 when Dhaka was made the capital of the newly created province of East Bengal. It gained city status in 1947 when it was made the capital of East Pakistan and by that time stretched over an area of about 40 sq km. The importance of Dhaka increased exponentially after 1971, when it became the capital of independent Bangladesh. As a result the city expanded phenomenally and according to the census of 1991 the area and population of Dhaka mega city were 1,600 sq km and 6.83 million respectively. The present population of Dhaka is about 9.0 million (2001). It has been reported that a network of 22 canals, that used to form the natural drainage for the capital from the olden days has disappeared or shrunk over the last four decades. The disappearance of the canal net work has not only aggravated the city's derange problem, but also, apart from depriving the city of its natural beauty, has been causing loss of the annual recharge of ground water beneath the city, thereby leading to the fall of ground water table every year at an alarming rate.

Among the city canals the Dholai Khal which once used to be the artery of an important navigational route for country boats to and from destinations within the metropolis, has almost disappeared due to four decades of wrong policies of the city administration to construct roads by closing the canal. The canals had their outlets to the Buriganga, the Sitalakya, the Balu and the Turag rivers, which were inter-connected. This ancient canal used to encircle the old town joining the Buriganga by the Mitford Hospital and the Mill Barracks. The closing of the Khal has had far-reaching impact on the drainage system of the city.

The Segunbagicha Khal that extended from Shahbagh to the Jirani Khal via the Manda Bridge used to from the main drainage channel of central Dhaka. A major part of it is under illegal encroachment by influential people in the Segunbagicha, Purana Paltan and Naya Paltan areas. Under the Asian Development Bank-funded Dhaka Integrated Flood Control project, WASA managed to acquire a narrow strip of the canal and construct a box culvert through which storm sewer now empties. The box culvert has been turned into a road to prevent future encroachment. At the center there was the mighty Hatirjheel. The Gulshan lake system directly drained south-west into Hatirjheel and into east through the Rampura Khal to the Balu River. The Gulshan lake system was connected to Dhanmondi lake system via the Begunbari khal which then drained through the Katasur Khal into Turag. In the west the Katasur canal also drained Rayerbazar and Mohammadpur areas. Ramchandrapur and the Dholai Khal drained old Dhaka. Within the current Dhaka business hub at Motijheel was it's namesake Motijheel and the Segunbagicha Khal draining all of south central Dhaka. The Jirani Khal, the Shajahanpur Khal and the Mohakhali Khal used to bear the load of eastern Dhaka's storm water. Similarly the Kalyanpur, Ibrahimpur and Diabari Khals were the lifeline of north Dhaka.

The Hatirjheel, once owned by Bhawal Raja, was intended by the king as the water drainage system for Dhaka. Only 5.0% of the original Hatirjheel remains now. The Hatirjheel, which once ran from the backside of the present Sonargaon Hotel to Gulshan-1, is now being illegally occupied by BIAM, BRAC, Aarong, Capital Housing, Nirman International and other local land grabbers. Other important canals of the city, such as the Begunbari Khal extending from the Dhanmondi Lake to Trimuhani via Rampura before emptying into the Balu River, the Ibrahimpur canal, the Khathalbagan-Rajarbagh canal and the Gopibagh canal together with other minor canals of the city were all victims of either illegal encroachment or acquisition for construction of either roads, box culvert or underground drain. All these projects have changed the original purpose which the old network of canals was meant to serve. The Buriganga is a tragic story, as no proper steps have yet been taken for saving the dying river from the large-scale pollution of the river waters from industrial wastes from tanneries and other causative factors, coupled with unchecked encroachments on parts of the river-bed and its banks. Experts opine that a strong and independent authority, like the Thames River Authority may be set up to save the river from its deep travails.

Excepting a few, most water bodies in Dhaka are either lined by slums (more specifically slum latrines) or small industry waste disposal system and there is no easy access to reach them.

The systematic destruction of Dhaka's vital canals took an institutional shape during Ershad's Road building fiesta. We always credit Ershad government with doing most for Dhaka transport communication system. He did those by ignoring the voices of environmentalists and court directions. He filled up the very important Begunbari Khal east of Sonargaon to build Panthapath. The process of turning the Dholai Khal into a road was also started during his regime. Most of the vital wetlands of Dhaka are almost nonexistent now. Panthapath (Ershad's Great development work) landfill destroyed the whole eastern portion of the Begunbari Khal connecting Hatirjheel to Dhanmondi lake system. The 30-meter wide Dholai Khal is now a 2.5X2.5 meter box culvert.

Failure to complete the western part (Sonargaon intersection-Rampura) of Panthapath was one failure attributed to three successive democratic governments. We rarely ask why it was not done. One reason the plan had to be changed repeatedly was environmentalists' strong objection, which democratically elected governments could not ignore, in filling up or even building an elevated expressway over the Begunbari khal. It is in this back drop that the initiative of the LGRD ministry has to be welcomed. But will they succeed this time around, or will Dhaka continue to suffer ecological disaster? (Source: The Financial Express, April 19, 2007 ).

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