Dhaka: A Refuge that Needs to be Rescued

By Shamsuddin Illius
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With homes swallowed by floodwaters and river erosion, migrants from different parts of Bangladesh have opted to move to the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong for ‘safer ground.’ But these options for ‘safer’ ground are also sinking.

Every morning, Abdul Aziz wakes up before dawn in a 100-square-foot shack he shares with his wife and two daughters. Pedaling rickshaws in the streets of Dhaka is the only way the 50-year-old can provide bread and butter for his family now.

Aziz lives in the Korail slum, the largest slum in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The slum is home to nearly 200,000 people, most of them climate migrants. 

Once a farmer by profession, he used to live in Sylhet, the northeastern part of Bangladesh, where he planted rice and raised cattle on an acre of land. But a sudden flash flood and water congestion in May 2022 left him, along with over 4.3 million others, homeless. The floods washed away his entire property, including four cattle. Having no place to live and no means to earn a living, he ended up in the Korail slum.

The slum is overcrowded and squalid with poor sanitation, water, and drainage. The average slum house is around 100 square feet in size and consists of just one roomSlum dwellers’ houses are made with flimsy frames of bamboo and corrugated iron roofs, which amplify the sweltering heat and are vulnerable to storms. Overcrowded slums with illegal utility lines such as gas and electricity are often vulnerable to fire. Slum dwellers confront considerable health hazards as a result of their high density and poor access to healthcare, which frequently has a detrimental influence on their livelihoods.

It’s not only in the capital of Dhaka that survivors of extreme weather events and disasters end up. Many are to be found in the country’s second-largest city of Chittagong. Nur Nahar Begum lives with her four children and husband in informal dwellings next to the Karnaphuli River. She was forced to migrate to the city from Laxmipur, a low-lying southeast coastal district, after she lost her home in 2019 to river erosion. 

While cyclones uproot 110,000 people each year, an average of a million people are displaced in Bangladesh due to flooding, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. In addition, two-thirds of the country is less than 15 feet above sea level, making sea-level rise an increasing threat. 

“Losing home and livelihood and searching alternatives, everyday 2,000 people move to Dhaka, 70% of them due to natural disasters and climate change. The city is struggling to cope with the pressure of the migrants,” said Atikul Islam, mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), site of  the largest Korail slum, in an interview with Unbias the News.

Chittagong city, meanwhile, has been projected to experience a high rate of internal migration along with the district of Khulna, covering an estimated 15,000 – 30,000 migrants due to increasing soil salinity from sea-level rise. The 5,000 slums in Dhaka are home to four million people, while Chittagong’s 200 slums house 1.4 million migrants.

Why Dhaka is sinking

Aziz and Begum tried to move to what they deem as safer ground. However, Dhaka and Chittagong are already suffering from land subsidence.  

Dhaka is home to more than 20 million people, with over 48,000 people per kilometer, and is itself facing the climate crisis. On top of this, the fastest-growing megacity in the world suffers from depleting groundwater levels due to excessive extraction and inadequate infrastructure. The city is almost entirely dependent on groundwater resources as the freshwater sources are nearly unusable. The river basin area of Dhaka is linked to the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin system (locally called the Padma-Jamuna-Meghna river basin system). 

Saleemul Huq, climate scientist and director of Dhaka-based research organization International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), said that Dhaka is subsiding for two main reasons – groundwater extraction for its booming population and decreasing wetlands as a consequence of infrastructure development and rapid urbanization. 

“The wetlands that used to be part of the areas of Dhaka have shrunk considerably over the last 20-30 years. As a result, the water used to recharge the groundwater is no longer recharging groundwater. This increases the subsidence rate of the city.”

Saleemul Huq

Data from the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DWASA) shows that dating back to 1963, when the population of Dhaka was less than a million, the demand for water was 150 million liters per day, which is enough to fill about 60 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The DWASA would supply 130 million liters (MLD) by extracting groundwater using 30 deep tube wells (DTWs). At that time, they did not have any water treatment plants.

In 2021, the population of Dhaka ballooned to 20 million and so did its water demand. Dhaka now provides 2,590 MLD per day to the people by extracting groundwater using 906 deep tube wells, along with five water treatment plants. But this provision is still slightly lower than the demand of around 2,600 MLD. 

Aside from the DWASA’s 906 DTWs, about 4,000 households also get water from their own deep tube wells. But groundwater extraction has contributed to the depletion of the water level in Dhaka. In 1960, water was usually found within 20-30 meters. According to DWASA Managing Director, Engineer Taqsem A. Khan, now the extraction needs to go as deep as 400 to 750 meters at places for DTWs to get water. Khan explained that 66% of Dhaka’s water is taken from underground aquifers. The rest comes from surface water, such as rivers and other above-ground bodies of water, as explained by National Geographic.  “We have to go over 700 feet for getting water, [a level] which is increasing every year.”

Anwar Zahid, who heads the Directorate of Groundwater Hydrology at the Bangladesh Water Development Board, warned that the water level of Dhaka has dropped alarmingly in the last couple of decades. “The groundwater level in Dhaka city areas is decreasing very sharply with annual decline rates of 1.5 meter every year to 2.11 meter every year,” he said. Mongabay reported in August 2022 that groundwater levels in the greater Dhaka area could drop by 2030 by 3 to 5.1 meters (9.8 to 16.7 feet) per year, citing a study by the Bangladesh Water Partnership, a global network working on water security issues.

Dr. Syed Humayun Akhter, a geologist and vice chancellor of Bangladesh Open University, said as the underground water extraction goes on at an unsustainable rate, Dhaka will continue to sink, with some parts of it suffering subsidence at varying scale and intensity. “Subsidence is common for geological and tectonic reasons. But it occurs at a very low rate, around 3 mm yearly. Analyzing the data from the GPS set at Dhaka University Geology Department, we found that subsidence is happening at an alarming rate of around 12 mm per year in Dhaka . . . Lifting excessive groundwater mainly causes the land subsidence in Dhaka, though sea level rise and waterlogging are also responsible. If the subsidence goes at such a rate, it will be differential subsidence, which means subsidence takes place at a different rate at different points. It poses danger – to Dhaka and its buildings – as this creates imbalance.”

Chittagong: Industries versus individuals in limited water supply

Chittagong, on the other hand, has been identified as one of the coastal cities in Asia subsiding at a rate almost 10 times faster than the sea level is rising. Similar to Manila in the Philippines, it has sunk by as much as 20 mm per year over a 5-year period, during 2015-2020. 

The city, often touted as the country’s commercial capital, also has a groundwater extraction problem. Before 2010, the Chittagong Water Supply and Sewage Authority (CWASA) was able to supply only 190 million liters per day (MLD), not even half the city’s required water supply of  500 MLD. Out of this 190 MLD, 100 MLD was taken from underground aquifers. 

But CWASA chief engineer Maksud Alam said they have tried to switch to surface water through various projects. Since 2017, 92%  of the city’s water needs have been sourced from surface water. “We are trying to [be] solely dependent on surface water, realizing the problems,” he said in an interview with Unbias The News.

The transition has not been smooth, however. The country’s commercial hub, home to over 1,200 major industries such as steel and cement, continues to grapple with diminishing sources of water overall. Factories and enterprises found it difficult to get water even after “drilling 1,500 – 2,000 feet into the ground.” As a result, other companies like steel manufacturing company GPH Ispat Ltd have resorted to constructing their own dam to meet the water demand of both their operations and employees. While this was a temporary remedy, it has affected the capacity of ethnic minorities to get their own water in the area, as reported by The Daily Star. 

The thirsty industries have been accused of indiscriminately extracting groundwater as other sources such as River Kharnapuli have become more saline. People have protested against this, saying the continued extraction of private companies has cut their own supply of water, which they use for irrigation and drinking. 

"If industries continue to extract water in such a manner, there will be a huge catastrophe due to land subsiding."

Professor Muhammad Rashidul Hasan

“Already in many adjacent areas agricultural lands are not getting water because of the extraction of the industries,”  Professor Muhammad Rashidul Hasan, head of the urban and regional planning department at Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology told Unbias The News.  

Sans any intervention, this competition over groundwater between industries and Chittagong’s residents is only expected to worsen with the planned establishment of the largest industrial zone in the country, the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar (BSMSN)“More than 580 industries, including garments, automobiles, food, and the chemical industry, are expected to be established there,” a study conducted by Prof. Mahfuzur Khan from the University of Dhaka and other experts noted. “To run this industrial site every day, approximately 839 million liters/day of freshwater will be required by 2040, which will be collected from nearby surface water sources and groundwater,” it added.

To try to mitigate the sourcing of water through extraction, however, the government is looking into a project that will bring 900 MLD from River Meghna to the planned industrial zone. This move is critical. As Khan’ et al’s study noted, aside from the industrial sector and the city’s residents fighting over scarce water, having companies rely massively on groundwater extraction poses greater risk of seawater intrusion and land subsidence. 

As it is, seawater intrusion has already been a serious problem in Chittagong. Findings of this study showed most commuters lived on the coast that is at the most 5 meters above sea level. Over the years they have tried to deal with seawater intrusion by barricading the entrances, elevating their floors, and raising the roads. 

Agrabad, home to both local and international businesses and financial institutions, as well as of Chittagong’s wealthy families, is not spared from this problem. “Agrabad CDA Residential Area was the first and posh residential area in Chittagong. People came from all over Chittagong to see the modern residential area built by CDA [Chittagong Development Authority] in the heart of the Bangladesh commercial city in 1960s,” said Architect-Environmental Planner Reza Kaiser, former chief city planner of Chittagong City Corporation (CCC).

“All the ground floor of this posh residential area is now almost abandoned due to its constant inundation by saline water whenever there are high tides in the Bay of Bengal,” added Reza Kaiser.

Kaiser had identified Agrabad as a high risk area for flooding in his book ‘Climate change and its consequences on Chattogram (Chittagong) city of Bangladesh’. CDA Chief Engineer Kazi Hasan Bin Shams shared: “We are struggling with the situation. We elevated roads by three feet in 2019 spending millions of money but the tidal surge won again as it flooded the whole area this year. This is due to increasing sea level rise and some unplanned development.

The search for alternatives

To reduce the dependency on underground water, DWASA has taken several projects for surface water treatment. “Finding alternatives, we have taken a decision. We have to go for 70%  surface water and 30% underground water. If we can do it, Dhaka city will be environmentally viable and ecologically stable. Then we would have started our journey,” DWASA Managing Director Engineer Taqsem A. Khan said, “We had to get water from the Padma River, which is 22-32 km away from the capital Dhaka.” 

In order to meet the demands of this bustling population and replace the underground water with a surface water treatment plant, WASA (Water Supply and Sewerage Authority) has to take a huge soft loan from different development partners, such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, JICA, the Chinese Exim Bank, the Korean Exim Bank, and the German Development Bank. 

CWASA, on the other hand, has developed four projects in 2009, 2011, 2013 and in 2015, with the Bhandal-Juri water Supply Project scheduled to be completed this year. All in all, CWASA was able to increase the water capacity of Chittagong from 190 MLD to 500 MLD in a decade. “We hope soon we will go into operation of the Bhandal-Juri project that will produce 45 MLD, and we will be turning to 100% surface water. However, we are facing some difficulties in some plants due to increasing salinity,” said AKM Fazullah, managing director of CWASA. CWASA is treating the water of Halda River and Karnaphuli River. DWASA is treating water from the Shitalakhya and Padma Rivers. 

Prior to this, CWASA has implemented three water treatment projects costing roughly USD 655 million from three foreign lenders — Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), World Bank, Exim Bank of South Korea. The CWASA has to start their repayment from 2023 and has to pay around USD 29 million annually. DWASA’s debt to the foreign lenders, on the other hand, is roughly USD 2 billion and every year they have to repay around Tk400 crore to Tk600 crore or USD 47 million to USD71  million. 

Both CWASA and DWASA have reportedly passed the burden of paying these debts to the consumers through water tariffs, even if some of the projects did not allegedly deliver the intended results. 

Another suggested proposal is to construct water reservoirs for storing floodwater, which DWASA also tried to do in 2017. The same, according to an expert, could be done in Chittagong. “Bangladesh has to recover the water reservoirs and needs to build water reservoirs in the cities to store flood water,” Professor Md Reaz Akter Mullick, former head of the urban and regional planning department at Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology, said. 

Factoring in climate change

Looking for other sources of water to reduce the dependence on groundwater extraction is just one part of what has to be done. Another part deals with strengthening the capacity of Bangladesh to adapt to extreme weather events due to climate change, the effects of which could be made more harmful by unstable, subsiding land.

Bangladesh is increasing the climate allocation in its national budget every year.  The government created a USD 400 million Climate Change Trust Fund (CCTF) from its own resources for financing adaptation and mitigation projects. The CCTF covered a total of 732 projects across the country since 2010, worth around USD 297 million. Among them, a total of 377 projects have been completed, costing around USD 202 million, while 355 projects worth USD 95 million are in the process of implementation.

Bangladesh has also adopted a visionary plan called Delta Plan 2100, which aims to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters and build resilience to climate change and other delta challenges. It identified 34 projects as climate-relevant, and also determined that an additional 1.7 percent of GDP will be required each year to adapt to climate change and other environmental impacts. According to the Climate Budget Report (2021-2022), over the next couple of decades, USD 37 billion is needed to implement the first phase of this plan. 

“The good news is Bangladesh is investing quite a lot but that is not enough. So we need to enhance the amount of funding that we put into our national budget to tackle climate change because it is a big problem, and it will be a bigger problem in the future,” Professor Saleemul Huq said.

The World Bank has estimated that Bangladesh needs USD 5.7 billion as adaptation finance by 2050 every year. According to Bangladesh Climate Budget Report (2021-2022), the country is spending USD 1 billion a year, around 6% to 7% of its annual budget, on climate change adaptation. Of the money, 75% comes directly from the government, while the rest comes from international development partners. In August 2022, Bangladesh sought a total loan package worth USD 4.5 billion from the IMF, citing financing for climate change resilience projects and to shore up the government’s budget.

“Climate change is weighing extra pressure on the budget of Bangladesh. To implement the projects relevant to face the threats of climate change adaptation, we are spending money from our own resources and also borrowing money from foreign lenders,” Md. Shahab Uddin, minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said in an interview over the phone with Unbias the News. 

He hoped developed countries – the biggest greenhouse gas emitters – could keep their word and provide climate funding to developing countries such as Bangladesh, which are not major contributors to the climate crisis but will be massively impacted by it. “The developed countries promised USD 100 billion climate finance every year. If they release the money, it will help Bangladesh to continue taking on more projects to adapt to climate change,” said the minister.   

Apart from the funding, the country’s climate experts are hoping that international mechanisms could be set in place for climate migrants. “From the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) process, we are expecting some sort of developing displacement monitoring facilities under loss and damage that will be helpful for us to develop national projects and programs and addressing these challenges at a comprehensive level,” Shawkat Ali Mirza, Director, Climate Change and International Convention at the Department of Environment, said. 

These local and international efforts, if executed sustainably and effectively, could help provide a better refuge for Bangladesh’s climate migrants – one that is not temporary, livable and will not sink their new-found hope. 

The Sinking Cities Project is a global cross-border investigation that examines how sea-level rise is impacting major cities and how their governments are responding to the consequences of climate crisis.

Local journalists spent six months with our team investigating how their coastal cities are preparing for a threat that will affect communities, ecosystems, and economies all over the world.

These reports show that the response to the climate crisis is a social, historical and political phenomenon. Even on a city level, money and power obscure the picture of what needs to be done to ensure safety and justice for all. As journalists, we collaborate to clear the view.

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This investigation was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu, European Cultural Foundation and the German Postcode Lottery.

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