Do Not Blame the Water

The waterscape that I lived in between my graduation in mid-1980 and the present will be radically different from the waterscape that is likely to emerge between 2021 and 2050.

It was the evening of July 11, 2013. I was in a guest house in Dhaka waiting for a rented car to arrive to take me to a social gathering organized by friends of my university years. It was raining heavily. In fact, in the 36-hour period between 6 a.m. on July 11 and 6 p.m. on July 12, 114 mm of rain fell on Dhaka City, I was growing restless at the car’s lateness and was just about to call the driver when I received a call from him. His message roughly translated was as follows: “Sir, the entire city is underwater and I am unable to drive.” Then he asked me, “Why doesn’t the water drain?” I remember replying to him, “Do not blame the water”.

That night I penned a couplet summarizing the plight of Dhaka’s recurrent flooding.

ভরা বরষায় মনের আনন্দে যে জন হাঁটে
ঢাকার  ফুটপাত দিয়ে ফুলিয়ে বুকের ছাতি
সাবধান না হলে, খোলা ম্যানহোলে পড়ে নিভবে
জীবন বাতি।

খাল আর বিল হয়েছে দখল, তাতে
মিশে গেছে রাজনীতি
“আগামী বছর ডুববেনা এ শহর” ভোটারদের কাছে এটি নিত্য প্রতিশ্রুতি ।

[Whoever walks in the heavy monsoon on Dhaka’s swelling pavement with a delightful mind
If uncareful, drowning in the open manhole, his/her life could soon miserably wind.

Draining canals and internal waterbodies
all have been politically encroached

“Next year Dhaka will not be under water”
with this promise poor voters are regularly approached.]

It was easy for me to tell the driver not to blame the water. But today as cities across South Asia come to a halt when rainfall on them exceeds a certain threshold, I find myself repeating the same question: “Why doesn’t the water drain?” Answers are known but “way forward” actions remain elusive. Policymakers pretend they have answers, engineers blame politicians, politicians blame engineers, local authorities argue they have already instructed engineers to begin draining stagnant water. Commuters, in the meantime, wait for the water to drain. After the monsoon departs, everyone forgets. And the cycle repeats, year after year after year.

Water journey

Forty years ago, in April 1980, I arrived in Dhaka (Figure 1) from the southern district of Luxmipur to study civil engineering at the University of Engineering & Technology (BUET). Dhaka City in 1980 was vastly different from what it is today. The city had fewer people, and transportation was less chaotic. I have no memories of urban flooding except for the 1984 and 1988 floods when all of Bangladesh experienced exceptionally large floods. The flood of 1988 inundated almost 70% of the country and vast tracts of Dhaka were underwater. Overall, the flood had disastrous impacts. In response, numerous stretches of embankments were built around the city to protect it from future flooding. The embankments were hurriedly planned and built without conducting a thorough study. Immediately after they were built, the embankments created a waterlogging problem in the city’s peripheral areas.  Water no longer drained.

In mid-1984, I graduated with a degree in civil engineering with water resources and geo-technology as my majors. Four of my teachers, professors Ainun Nishat and Monowar Hossain and late M. Shahjahan and late Jahir Uddin Chowdhury instilled in me the desire to better understand water issues. They all claimed that water is key to the socio-economic wellbeing of Bangladesh and all of South Asia. The floods of the 1980s were a major reality check for me and lead me to decide to devote my life to studying water challenges. I began to appreciate the complexity of water issues and the way water challenges intersect with diverse elements of nature and societies.

The arrival of 1990 was both a global and a local watershed. The Berlin Wall had come down, the former Soviet Union dissolved and the neoliberal economic agenda had become the order of the day. In Bangladesh, the nine-year-long military rule had ended, the democratic process had been reinstituted, and economic liberalization and reforms had become the new paradigm. Subsequently, Dhaka started experiencing rapid population growth as more villagers migrated to the capital in search of new opportunities. According to an estimate by the World Bank, the city’s population grew from 6 million to 12 million between 1991 and 2005. As the demand for housing and businesses rose, Dhaka’s real estate prices started to skyrocket.

There were other changes too. Bangladesh became a test cricket-playing nation and the world’s fastest-growing economy. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF)[i], today it has the world’s second-biggest garment industry, a large and young workforce, and the largest number of IT freelancers in the world and is moving towards a knowledge-based society. Bangladesh aims to become a developed country within the next 20 years. In 1992 when the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) began, Bangladesh, as a climate-vulnerable country, was at the forefront and creatively began engaging in the global process. Today the country is a major participant in the global climate discourse.

This success story also has a flip side, however. In the prevalent political economy, the increase in population inflow began to add to the already unplanned urbanization. Expanding urban settlements have encroached on internal canals, channels, wetlands, and water bodies at an alarming pace. Encroachers are not only powerful but are also in cahoots with the political class and some government agencies. At the same time, the capacity of the peripheral rivers that emptied surface flow generated from rainfall within Dhaka city began shrinking due to siltation, garbage dumping, and further encroachments. Over the decades, the combined impact has gone from bad to worse. This process of decline continues today.

Dhaka City: 1990 and 2020

In 2013 the Government of Bangladesh created the National River Protection Commission (জাতীয় নদী রক্ষা কমিশন) to recommend ways to prevent encroachment on rivers and water bodies. The commission identified 65 canals in half of Dhaka City in a recent review of land survey records, maps, and other documents. It is estimated that the city once had over 100 canals that were used to run boats transporting people and commodities. These canals also helped drain accumulated rainwater quickly and water-logging was rare. Unfortunately, the commission has made little progress in recommending ways to make rivers and waterways more navigable and to prevent encroachment and pollution. Over the decades, as roads received more priority than water-based transport, canals were filled in. In many places, channels were made narrower to allow for the building of more roads. Today, the narrow channels are unable to drain the accumulated rainwater.

The city’s flood drainage woes are a reminder of the old English phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth”[ii]. The following four agencies responsible for water management in Dhaka create more chaos than they make a coordinated response. The Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) is responsible for the management of flood embankment gates and regulators. Dhaka Water Supply Authority (DWASA), which was created to supply drinking water and manage sanitation, looks after larger open drainage and pipes. Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) North and South manage surface water and small drains while the Capital Development Authority (Rajdhani Unnayan Katripakha (RAJUK)) would build drainage channels on the side when new urban roads are built. BWDB, DWASA, and DCC are also responsible for the operation of stations that pump out accumulated rainwater. These responses are highly fragmented. No effort has been made to streamline these activities under a single management agency. Recently, DWASA has agreed to hand over the management of Dhaka’s southern open water drainage program to DCC South. How it will proceed is a major question.

Irrigation water: Overuse and misuse

In the early 1990s, I received a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. degree in New Zealand. After returning to Bangladesh in April 1998 with my degree, I joined the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS). At CEGIS, I began working on a drought research project sponsored by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council. For fieldwork, we selected the Ganges-Kobadak (G-K) project, which is spread across Kushtia, Chuadanga, Jhenaidaha, and Magura districts in Southwest Bangladesh. The G-K irrigation project, which falls under the BWDB, is one of the largest in Bangladesh.  It was commissioned in the 1960s to provide supplementary irrigation from February to November.

The Ganges-Kobadak (G-K) irrigation project area.

We spent almost six months talking with project engineers, representatives of local governments, and farmers. We hoped to understand their perceptions of water availability and uses and the requirements of various crops, especially high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice. Most of the respondents said that there is now less water in the river than there was in the past. They noted that the performance of the irrigation system frequently declines as the flow in the Ganga River in the dry season was inadequate. The commissioning of the Farakka Barrage in April 1975 made the problem worse.

In the dry season, because the water level in the river often falls below the designed level, the operation of the pump suffers. The canal that connects the pump house with the main river has to be regularly cleaned of silt deposits. The 1996 Ganga Water Treaty between Bangladesh and India did allow some water to flow, but the quantity did not meet the irrigation, navigation, and ecosystem requirements of Bangladesh.

We found signs that water was significantly over-used in the fields and that the amount used exceeded the estimated amount.  As a result, the entire project area could not be irrigated. When asked why they used so much water, most of the respondents complained, “Water does not stay in the fields” (“ক্ষেতে পানিথাকেনা”). I had heard similar complaints when I was conducting fieldwork at the Chandpur Irrigation Project (CIP) for my Master’s of Engineering thesis in 1989. In fact, the water did seep through cracks, down rat holes, and ultimately percolate into groundwater aquifers. A significant amount of water was lost through earthen secondary and tertiary canals. On the contrary, the tendency to use excessive water in rice fields had a psychological cause:  people believe—wrongly—standing water results in greater yields of rice.

In Bangladesh, the average water use in an HYV rice field is 4,500 m3/hectare, three times more than that in Thailand.  In India, producing one kilogram of rice requires 15 m3.  A proper approach to water management, however, could lower this amount to 0.6 m3. There are two other reasons for the excessive use of water. First, standing water retards the growth of weeds and is thereby a cost saver for farmers. Secondly, across irrigation projects in South Asia water is almost free, and, when anything is free, we tend to over-or misuse it. In the G-K project, we found free water was a major determinant of excessive water use. Little effort has been made in R&D on increasing the efficiency of water application in Bangladesh even though its irrigation systems are at least 60-70 years old. At the same time, the size of the agricultural workforce has declined and there has been little investment in either farmers’ education or raising awareness. Instead, far more resources continue to be invested in the development of high-yielding crops.

 These shifts in the waterscape over the last 30 years also have a major global driver:  climate change. The impacts of climate change are manifest in the hydrological cycle. Today, rainfall is more erratic and intense than it was in the past. Rainfall events have serious implications for drainage in conglomerates like Dhaka City which exhibit haphazard urban expansion. Erratic and intense rainfall will also alter the need for supplemental irrigation in the command area of irrigation projects like the G-K.

Waterscape: 2020 to 2050

The present prognosis for the climate change-spawned future is not very rosy. Studies suggest that by 2050 climate change-induced sea-level rise may displace 60 million people from coastal regions. Rainfall over mountains, plains, deltas, and cities is becoming more intense and erratic. In South Asia’s snow-fed basins, increased snowmelt is likely to alter the region’s rivers and have serious downstream consequences. The combined impacts will create both pull and push factors for rural-urban migration and more families will move to already stressed cities and already expanding urban areas will encroach on still more green spaces, wetlands, canals, and water bodies. Rainfall thresholds will increase, causing the accumulation of more stagnant water that cannot drain. Water will continue to be blamed. Unfortunately, it cannot offer its side of the story.

The waterscape that I lived in between my graduation in mid-1980 and the present will be radically different from the waterscape that is likely to emerge between 2021 and 2050. I wonder how a South Asian engineer who graduates in 2020 will reflect on his or her journey in 2050?

It is absolutely imperative that we begin two major structural transformations. First, we must re-imagine our urban development paradigm in a fashion that takes cognizance of the region’s geographical, hydrological and social realms. Second, the global economy, including the economies of Bangladesh and all other South Asian countries, must undergo decarbonization. Our economies must reduce carbon emissions and adopt a nature-friendly pathway.  The more the world can decrease the amounts of greenhouse gases produced today, the less adaptation will cost.  At the same time, the greenhouse gases already discharged to the atmosphere will continue to make weather erratic, resulting in unbearable heat waves, droughts, sea-level rise, flooding, and wildfires. Because these extreme events pose an existential threat to those already vulnerable, we must be much better prepared than we are to respond to these adverse events.

In this journey, we should not blame water for “not draining quickly” or for “not being retained in the field”. The blame, if blame is to be attributed at all, should be to human agency failures and institutional constraints. In the future, we must avoid such failures and remove institutional constraints.



[2] There are opposing views, too.  English statistician Sir Francis Galton found in 1906 while experimenting with the weight of an ox that, if guess were made by many people, they could produce a result closer to the correct answer than if guesses were made by few people. Later, people of various fields applied his work, entitled “The Wisdom of Crowds in statistical experiments,” aiming to get more accurate forecasts by engaging more participants. In the case of Dhaka’s water management, we have used the wisdom of crowds based on historical accounts of performance.

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