Dhaka - dream or nightmare?

Dhaka is the fastest growing megacity in the world and one of the poorest. It is the keeper of strong survivors, restless migrants and climate refugees. If a city is made of dreams and desires then a megacity is made of dreams, desires and fears. Dhaka is a child of random, feverish urbanism. For some, this urban giant is like a daydream, for many it is a nightmare. Like any megacity Dhaka has a distinctive spatial form, a complex unit of production and a single labour market. The urban system designed a hundred years ago for less than a million is blatantly unworkable for a population that has exceeded 10 million and is being tested for 15 million. A mosaic of environmental issues, which are similar to the problems other megacities are facing, badgers Dhaka. For instance, the Buriganga river, once a lifeline of Dhaka, is now a biologically dead river. All of Dhaka's waterways - the Buriganga, Shitalakhya, Turag and Balu rivers - are now cesspits, the water a dark, stinking mess. Ecologically fragile Dhaka is bursting at the seams, suffering from a catalogue of environmental ills. The rate of urban development rate is limping, with almost 50 % of the megacity's population living in slums.

The polarisation between the rich and the poor is widening and squatters are swamping Dhaka. Half of Dhaka's population lives in ramshackle one or two-room houses made of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks and scrap wood. They end up in areas directly adjacent to garbage dumps, toxic chemical industries, sewage treatment plants and freeway crossings.

The slum dwellers are suffering from these environment hazards while simultaneously compounding them by encroaching on the riverbanks and green spaces. The slums are not connected to the municipal sewage system and there is no garbage collection. Slum dwellers cook on open charcoal stoves or use dung and fuel wood which exude noxious fumes in poorly ventilated homes.

The lack of sanitation in the slums is compounded by frequent flooding which brings effluent and rubbish straight into peoples' living spaces. Overcrowding is another serious health hazard with most people sharing a single room with at least three or more people. Most of the city's slum dwellers live in dense clusters of between 500 to 1,500 people per acre and the competition for living space can only get worse with ever larger numbers of people gravitating to the city.

There are urban planning directives in place but in Bangladesh, and in Dhaka in particular, there are lot of good idea and many well laid plans but no implementation, and often those who break the laws are the very same people who are meant to be enforcing it. This megacity is effectively an island surrounded by waterways on all sides which is now expanding beyond the belt of rivers that engulf it with bridges crossing into surrounding areas. Though most of the land around the city is a wetland which is meant to be protected, lax environmental regulation means that the city is encroaching ever further into the few bits of nature that haven't already been consumed.

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