Published on August 3, 2023
Boats on the Buriganga river, snap by Emon Chowdhury

Dhaka was born on the relatively highlands of the old natural levee along the river Buriganga and the Dholai creek. Because it was dangerous to populate the floodplains towards the south from the levee, the settlement expanded only towards the west and the north. Ancient Dhaka used the waterways as the main transportation route, which also connected the city with the rest of the world. In fact, multiple water forts along the river courses protected the city from unwanted bandits from Portugal. Marvelous boats would sail majestically over the waters during the pre-Mughal and Mughal eras. I bet, if the waterways were intact, Mercedes might be manufacturing  Sampan boats (traditional fishing boats of Bengal) for the Bengalis!

During the colonial period, Dhaka’s waterways were traumatized. In 1912, sociologist Patrick Geddes proposed a counterplan to the British proposal to bury the water bodies. Geddes had advised that the floodplains of Dhaka must be urbanized with the marshy ecosystem in mind, not mechanizing the floodplains, for they will keep flooding. Regular dredging to maintain rivers and ways to strengthen water-based inland transportation would have fitted well according to Geddes. Instead, The British introduced a railway on the other end of the Buriganga. Dhaka stopped looking at the river for commerce. They canalized the Dholai Creek and introduced the cordon system for flood management for the Buriganga and Dholai. This alien engineering introduced to Dhaka crippled the city’s waterways, the city was shielded away from the river, catalyzing the landfill process of the wetlands for urbanization.

Local influentials like Revati Mohan proposed to the British Public Works Department to develop ghats, dredge the canals, and maintain the ecological environment that was being disturbed through expedited commerce and manufacturing guided by the colonizers. However, the maintenance was deemed expensive for them. A foreign group whose infrastructure expertise lay on pitch roads and railway tracks could not care less about the ecology and urban needs for a floodplain, which they were inhabiting with the vision of maximizing profit. During the post-colonial period, the masterplan of Dhaka suggested box-culverts, an idea lent from the colonizers. During the regime of Ershad in the “independent” Bangladesh, all major canals were buried below the roads. Growing up, I rarely saw any healthy waterbody in the open. Studies show that 125 kms of canals were depleted within the 1960s to 2004.

Painting of the Buriganga river bank by Frederick William Alexander de Fabeck, 1861

“The most indirect shaping is through policies that create a context that shapes landscapes, in turn.”- Anne Whiston Spirn

The British politics glare to me today, a mindset changed, a mindset remolded, a relationship torn. Dhaka’s urban infrastructural growth is based on building massive elevated expressways while the waters flood us to death. And the engineering? Its borrowed foreign technology. We are unable to realize the need to generate new urban recipes that adhere to the geographical contexts of a delta, that are inherent to Dhaka. How can we? It is intimidating. We do not know how to conversate with the delta. We are not ready to uproot the colonial bug that’s cultivated through political witch-crafters, with the mission to keep controlling the city through broken urbanism horribly unsuitable for the poor delta city. Alas, we are oblivious.



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