On 10 September, Md Kamal resumed his job as a van driver for the Pran company in Chattogram. He was returning to work eight days after identifying the body of his deceased son, Abdul, recovered from an open drain. He could not afford a longer leave of absence. "My employer allowed me time to grieve and said to come back when I am able. I have bills to pay."
On Friday evening [1 September], Kamal received a call from his home that his son was missing. He was at the market at the time. "We started a search party with miking right away. And continued till 4 am Fajr prayer time."
Kamal resumed the search again at 8am. "This time we had two miking [vans]." Within a few hours, Kamal started to hear how someone saw a dead body of a child floating. "We rushed. It was my son. His body was recovered from a drain in Chhotopol Panchtala [area]."
"I brought my dead son home in a CNG. The people there helped me carry him into the vehicle."
The police arrived within 15 minutes after Kamal reached his residence.
Abdul recently got admitted to a madrassah about 50-60 feet away from his home. His father's wish was to see his son as a Hafez. "Sometimes he used to go to the garages [close to home] to explore and play," said Kamal.
Abdul was a playful young child. "Never once I found him fighting with other children. Amar chele bhishon shohoj shorol chilo (my son was very simple)," said the grieving father. "There are about 300 families who live in our colony in Halishahar thana [in Chittagong city]. Many families have children of my son's age."
A few feet away from the house [20 haath dure] is an open drain. It is believed that Abdul slipped and fell into the open drain where he met his untimely fate. "That's all we know," said Kamal.
Abdul would have turned six years old on 18 December this year. He is survived by his one-and-a-half-year-old brother and shattered parents. Kamal received Tk6,000 from his office and loaned Tk4,500 from his mother-in-law for his son's burial cost. "We live paycheck to paycheck, we don't have an inkling of savings," added Kamal.
"I have heard of accidents, people falling and dying before. In fact, last year someone died. It [the drain] is about six inches high from the road, that's it." Kamal said, not just people, but there is a high risk of CNG auto rickshaws and cars facing fatal accidents in the open drain.
In late August, Yasin Arafat, another young boy, also met a similar fate. His body was recovered from the Rangipara KM Hashem Tower area of North Agrabad. "He was handed over to Halishahar Thana. We do not have any further information," Sub-Inspector Protul Barua of Double Mooring Thana informed us.
Halishahar Thana's OC did not pick up calls, instead cut the line when contacted on Monday. However, when reached out earlier in the week, TBS was redirected to another thana.
Earlier in August, at the time of heavy rainfall resulting in a waterlogged port city, a college student, Nipa Palit, drowned and died after falling into a submerged drain.
"There is a reason for keeping the drains open [according to concerned authorities]," said Professor Dr Muhammad Rashidul Hasan, Dean, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Chittagong University of Engineering & Technology (CUET), "Chattogram is a place like none other in the country. Surrounded by hills, when it rains, there is soil filtration, meaning soil fills up these drains and canals. Waste management and cleanup will become more difficult if the drains are blocked off with walls or slabs, they say. And we agree. However, there are alternatives."
"Using a grill or other material, a cover can be placed on these open drains so that people and vehicles can detect it and keep it safe. It is a measure called safety fencing," the former head of the department explained.
According to Hasan's department's research, they have counted at least seven deaths in Chattogram City Corporation over the last four to five years in open canals and drains.
"Abdul makes it eight then," Hasan told TBS.
Six organisations - CCC, CDA, WASA, WDB, Bangladesh Railway and Chattogram Port Authority - are connected to the water logging problem in the port city.
The previous 20-year master plan (1995-2015) for Chattogram was approved in 1999. The plan details three types of drains – tertiary, secondary and primary, according to Hasan. The tertiary are the drains we see around houses, while the primary ones are canals that connect to rivers.
"Tertiary and secondary ones are not properly maintained," said Professor Hasan.
According to Professor Hasan, a Tk11,000 crore project is working with canals in Chattogram to construct or improve it. "Even if the plan comes to fruition, which deals with 36 canals, it leaves 21 more under construction."
The project seems to have hit a perpetual halt. Currently, under CDA, it is supposed to be handed over to the city corporation. "However, the handover is yet to happen."
Death in open drains is a deadly but small part of a larger looming crisis: Chattogram's mishandled city plans in the face of rapid urbanisation.
In an earlier TBS report, Chattogram City Mayor Rezaul Karim Chowdhury said, "The CDA has not cleaned even one-fourth of the soil (9.5 million cubic metres) it was supposed to extract from the canals under their projects. The width of the canal has been reduced to make roads but the depth of the canal has also decreased, resulting in reduced water flow."
"Apart from this, the water closets are not yet operational. There is no arrangement for removing water with pumps. That is why waterlogging still persists," the mayor said.
In the same TBS report, CDA Chief Engineer Kazi Hasan Bin Shams, refuting the allegations, said, "The canals were properly maintained under the projects. However, the city corporation did not fix the drainage system. That is why water cannot flow unhindered from canal to canal, resulting in waterlogging as usual."
The conundrum prevails while lives are at stake and continue to be lost. A lack of coordination and mismanagement continue to plague Chattogram's city development projects exceeding thousands and thousands of crores of taka.
When CDA Chief Engineer Kazi Hasan Bin Shams was contacted regarding Abdul's death in an open drain, he redirected us to Lt Col Md Shah Ali, project director of re-excavation, expansion, renovation and development of Chattogram canals.
"The open drains you speak of are not under my jurisdiction. We are constructing a few hundred kilometres of drains. All are covered with slabs. I cannot comment on the ones that exist without cover," Lt Col Md Shah Ali told TBS.
These open drains continue to pose a real threat even without floods. "I heard about a CNG carrying a woman and a child falling into one of these open drains recently," said Professor Hasan, adding, "This is a real cause for concern."
Additionally, in the face of climate change and raging floods, the likelihood of these deaths increases – such as in the case of Nipa Palit.
"In recent years we have not seen a tide with such height. It is more than 0.5 metres from the regular height that causes water to enter the city," said Chief Hydrographer of Chattogram Port Authority Commander M Arifur Raham in an earlier TBS report.
Science indicates more erratic rainfall caused by climate change. For instance, regular rainfall in August at around 530 mm reached the 587mm mark in the first seven days of August.