Unplanned urbanisation, illegal high-rise building construction, indiscriminately cutting hills and filling up lakes have been making the Sylhet city unliveable for five lakh residents
Though even light rain floods various area in Sylhet city there is a severe scarcity of drinking water. Illegal occupation of pavements and traffic jam cause daily sufferings to the city dwellers. Besides, during the dry season, the city becomes murky due to the dust produced from ongoing development construction.
Full of green tea gardens and hills, Sylhet was declared a city corporation in 2002 with an area of 26.5 square kilometres.
There were many natural lakes known as chara in the city apart from the Surma river that flows through the city. Sylhet is one of the popular destinations to tourists because of its natural beauty. However, unplanned urbanisation, illegal high-rise building construction, indiscriminately cutting hills and filling up lakes and other water bodies have been making the city unliveable for five lakh residents.
In the last six years, development projects worth Tk800 crore have been implemented in Sylhet, said the Sylhet City Corporation though the high-budget development activities could not lessen the sufferings of the people. Experts blame unplanned development for the sufferings.
A master plan was taken in 2010 for the development of the Sylhet City Corporation, however, development works allegedly took place without following the master plan.
Urban planner and a professor at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology Dr Jahir Bin Alam said Sylhet was gradually becoming unfit for living due to unplanned urbanisation.
"The city is developing but not in a well-planned way. We submitted a master plan for the development of Sylhet, which has not been followed."
Many high-rise buildings are being constructed in this earthquake-prone city, most of which are built without following building codes properly. There is no fire safety system in many buildings. As a result, many structures will turn into problems for the people in the future.
Scarcity of drinking water
Sylhet City Corporation, which provides drinking water in the city, cannot provide even one-third of required water as it is not able to purify the required amount of water.
The Corporation sources said the daily demand for water for the dwellers is almost eight crore litres. At present, the corporation can provide only three crore litres, causing a shortage of five crore litres of water per day.
To meet the demand of the city dwellers, a new water treatment plant was established in the city's Kushighat area in 2007 with a cost of Tk132 crore. The daily target was to get 2.80 crore litre of water daily from the plant, which was supposed to start production in full swing from 2012. Yet, the production has not started.
People of the city's Rainagar, Dorjibond, South Shahi Eidgah, Jharnarpar, Rajbari, Sonarpar, Shrabonipara, Mirapara, etc suffer the most from the water crisis.
Abdul Kalam, a resident of Ward 17, said, "Often we get water once in two or three days."
Ward 26 resident Samrat Hossain said he had not got any water even for a single day.
We have been given assurance of water only, he added.
Sayed Jamal Hossain, executive engineer (water) at the Sylhet City Corporation, said, "The Surma becomes dry during the dry seasons. As a result, it is not possible to supply required water from Kushighat water plant. Besides, the city's Topkhana Treatment Plant, which was established in 1936, cannot meet the growing demand now. Apart from this, the underground water level is going down, which is another reason for the scarcity of water."
A project proposal has been submitted to the ministry for establishing a treatment plant in Chenger Khal of Badaghat in Sylhet. Once the plant is established water demand can be met.
Lakes are occupied causing waterlog
There are around 20-25 areas like Sagordighir par, Laldighir par, Ramerdighir par in Sylhet. These are name-only lakes as there is no water in those lakes. Those are filled up long ago. In the last three decades, more than 50 lakes have been filled up.
Originated from mountains or hills, around 25 natural lakes that flow through Sylhet city meet the Surma. Water used to drain through the lakes during the winter. As a result, there was no waterlog. Nowadays, there is no sign of those lakes, causing waterlogging in the city even after light rain.
Corporation sources said the length of the 13 large lakes that flow through the city is 73 kilometres. Illegal grabbers have kept the two banks of the lakes occupied for a long time. The Corporation spent almost Tk367 crore in three projects to free these lakes. Lastly, in 2016, a large project of Tk236.4 crore was taken up. A list of 268 lake occupiers was prepared in 2016. Most of them are influential. Besides, there are some government institutes too. They have built multi-storey buildings there. Many of them have changed the course of the lakes.
In the last rainy season, Pathantula, Modina market, Uposhahor, Terorton and many other areas get waterlogged.
Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik (Sujan) Sylhet chapter President Faruk Mahmud Chowdhury said, "Though many projects have been launched, the city dwellers have not been benefitted from those. There are questions regarding the implementation of the projects. Even the city corporation has not been able to ensure transparency yet. The result is the waterlogging problem has not been solved."
Corporation's Chief Executive Engineer Nur Azizur Rahman, however, differed, saying, "We have recovered 30 kilometres area of the lakes, and waterlogging has decreased. Some areas get waterlogged after heavy rain but the water retreats within a short time."
"In many cases, after we evacuate the occupiers the lakes are reoccupied. Coordinated efforts are essential to fight these, which is not possible for the city corporation only," he added.
The sufferings of traffic jam
Traffic jam has become a permanent problem in Sylhet. It has become intolerable for the people due to the illegal occupation of the pavements and the digging activities on almost all the roads.
There are almost 22 kilometres of pavement in Sylhet which are grabbed by hawkers. There is hardly any place for the pedestrians to walk on.
As per the directives of the court, the police in 2017 identified 16 influential people who patronised pavement grabbing. Later, the court issued arrest warrants against them. Besides, every week the city corporation conducts drives to free the occupied pavements. In spite of all these initiatives, the pavements have not been freed.
Ahmed Minhaz, who was stuck in a traffic jam in Zindabazar area in the city on Monday (December 30), said, "There are makeshift shops here and there including pavements and even on roads but we have not seen any visible effort against it from the police or the city corporation."
Faisal Mahmud, deputy commissioner (traffic) of Sylhet Metropolitan Police, said, "There are around 10,000 illegal autorickshaws in the city. Moreover, several thousands of rickshaws enter the city from adjacent unions every day, which make the traffic condition worse. To solve the traffic jam in the city we have been conducting raids against illegal vehicles."
Along with traffic jam, the dust problem has been adding to the woes of city people. Many people use a face mask to get rid of dust. It is the school going children who suffer the most from the dust problem.
Corporation's Chief Executive Officer Bidhayak Roy Chowdhury said, "People do not have to suffer for long. When the ongoing construction of pavements, expanding the roads, the setting up of electric wire under the roads will be completed the traffic jam and the dust issues will be solved."
Though various types of development works have been going on in Sylhet for the last six years under big-budget projects, there has been no long-term plan before implementing those.
Executive Engineer Ali Akber said, "The masterplan was prepared long ago but the city has gone through many changes by now. So, the plan is not implementable at present. Many experts including national professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury are working under the leadership of the mayor to prepare a new masterplan.
On the other hand, almost 80 percent high-rise buildings in the city do not have adequate fire extinguishing and disaster management system, while the rest of the buildings meet minimal requirement only.
According to the Bangladesh National Building Codes (BNBC), any building over six-storey is by definition a high-rise building. According to the Sylhet City Corporation, there are more than 300 six-storey buildings and more than 50 nine-storey buildings in Sylhet city.
Chief Executive Engineer Nur Azizur Rahman said, "We are not approving a high rise building without any safety plan. For building a high rise building one has to take approval from the fire service department before submitting the design to the city corporation. However, many building owners take approval from the fire service promising to install safety plan later. Unfortunately, they do not adhere to the promise and do not set up a safety plan.
Nirmal Chanda, former deputy director of Fire Service and Civil Defence Sylhet, said, "Every high-rise building must have a safety plan. Unfortunately, almost 80 percent of the building in the city do not have a safety plan."
Abdul Karim Kim, executive member of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, said, "In the last few years, apart from unplanned development, the environment in Sylhet has also been destroyed. Almost 80 percent of hills have been cut. There is hardly any lake at present. Indiscriminate tree cutting is going on. If these are not stopped immediately we have to face a sheer disaster."
Sylhet City Corporation Mayor Ariful Haque Chowdhury said, "I have solved the waterlogging problem of the city significantly after I was elected. Moreover, roads have been expanded to minimise traffic jam. City bus service has been introduced. The regular drive has been carrying out to free the pavements."
On December 24 last year, a Tk1200-crore project was approved in the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council for the development of Sylhet city. Under the project, there will be development works including setting up lines for drinking water supply, constructing water treatment lab, developing roads and drainage system, introducing health cards, and renovation of lakes, he said.
Once the project will be completed many problems faced by the people will be solved, he hoped.