Seven-year-old Fardin gazes at a towering structure every day on his way home from school. He has not seen such a tall building anywhere else, and it stands out with its enormous round top. To Fardin, it looks like a giant round house. He wonders if anyone lives there.
One afternoon, as he walked home from school, he finally mustered the courage to ask his grandfather about it.
"Grandpa, who lives up there?" His grandfather chuckled upon hearing the question and responded, "Oh, dear, no one lives there. It's actually a water tank. In the past, water was stored there, and it would flow to everyone's home from that point."
"Water tank!" Fardin exclaimed in surprise, his eyes wide. "I can't believe water used to be stored up so high!"
Observing Fardin's amazed expression, a thought crossed his grandfather's mind - these tanks have now become a part of history. These elevated water tanks, once a crucial part of Dhaka's water supply, will become just a source of wonder for children like Fardin in the days to come.
Dhaka's first overhead water tank
Historical records indicate that Dhaka's first overhead water tank was established in 1878, positioned to the north of Bahadur Shah Park in Old Dhaka. Locals commonly refer to this tank as the 'Bahadur Shah Park Water Tank'.
Its distinctive red-brick-wall construction, unique architectural style, and advanced building techniques make it a striking sight that easily captures the attention of the passersby.
Resembling a dome in some aspects, this imposing structure reaches a height comparable to that of a five-story building. Starting from 24 May, 1878, the tank was employed to distribute fresh water to the area. The exact decommissioning date, however, is uncertain—some say during Pakistan's rule, others about two decades ago. Regardless, this 145-year-old tank now stands as a nonfunctional monument.
Declared historic by the Capital Development Authority in May 2020, the tank's significance as British-Nawab history goes unnoticed. The interior now serves as a shrine's business space, with makeshift shops around it.
Decades ago, the tank fell into the hands of the occupiers. A shrine was established in the vacant space beneath the tank. Numerous newspapers reported on this development last year. According to the reports, extortion from the makeshift shop in the tank area was also carried out through the shrine.
Even to this day, there are several temporary shops lining the walls of the tank. An iron gate marks the entrance, adorned with banners and posters of the shrine. However, surprisingly, there isn't even a modest memorial acknowledging this historical institution that once safeguarded the people of Dhaka from death and epidemics, by supplying clean water.
Constructed from robust red bricks, this towering tank stands as a captivating landmark within Bahadur Shah Park. Entry reveals a black-and-white checkered floor resembling a chessboard and a central pillar within the circular tank. At the tank's crown, an outward-facing cement-made lion's mouth comes into view, reminiscent of Singapore's Merlion Statue. According to the shrine's caretaker, the British designed this to prevent rainwater accumulation.
Located before Bahadur Shah Park, this initial water tank of Dhaka reflects its former glory and history.
Dhaka's landscape dotted with WASA's 38 dormant overhead water tanks
Talking to the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA), it was discovered that they currently have 38 overhead water tanks under their jurisdiction, none of which are operational any longer.
During our exploration, we stumbled upon another water tank in the Bhattikhana area of Ganderia, which is contemporaneous with Bahadur Shah Park Water Tank. Its architectural style bears a striking resemblance, and the tank itself is constructed from red bricks.
According to local residents, this is believed to be Dhaka city's second water tank. It's surrounded by algae-covered walls and features a water ATM booth outside. The ground beneath the tank is riddled with scattered ashes.
Shakib, the booth operator, mentioned that the tank's condition has been like this since he was born. When there are picnics or small events in houses nearby, people often set up cooking arrangements under the tank. During Qurbani Eid, those who lack space to keep their cows in their homes also tether their cows under this tank.
The tanks constructed in the post-Pakistani era are predominantly whitish in colour, and taller compared to their older counterparts. Adjacent to these tanks, there are water pumps operated by the WASA, which directly supply water to the surrounding areas. The same is true of the overhead water tanks in Hatkhola Road, Fulbaria, Fakirapool, Bijoynagar, Lalmatia, and Mirpur 10 areas.
Notably, both the Fakirapool and Lalmatia tanks are constructed from steel and are considerably larger in size, compared to typical water tanks.
The tanks located near the WASA Zone Office are in relatively better condition, whereas the remaining tanks have been left exposed and unprotected.
Why were the tanks closed?
Large overhead water tanks were primarily employed to store purified water from the WASA treatment plant, ensuring a reserve through pumps. "This system guaranteed uninterrupted water supply to residents during pump repairs," explained Md Abdul Kader, Assistant Public Information Officer of Dhaka WASA.
Back then, Dhaka's population was considerably smaller. Presently, the city's populace has surged past twelve million. Engineer AKM Shahid Uddin, Deputy Managing Director of Dhaka WASA, highlighted that filling these overhead water tanks used to take ten hours. However, due to the city's growth and the need for swift water supply, the reserve tank practice has ceased. Direct water supply to individual household tanks is the current norm.
No one within WASA can definitively outline when and why the 38 overhead water tanks in Dhaka were installed and closed. The records lack such information.
A retired WASA engineer, speaking anonymously, shed light on this history. He has long experience of working in different zones of Dhaka Wasa. According to him, the steel tank in Lalmatia was installed in the early 1970s, along with two other steel tanks at Fakirapool and Mohakhali, which were also commissioned during the same period.
These tanks were significantly larger in size, but they were never filled to their full capacity. Instead, only the lower cone-shaped portion of these tanks was utilised. This resulted in excessive pressure on the water pumps responsible for lifting water into the overhead tanks, causing frequent pump failures every few days.
As a result of this, the maintenance expenses for the pumps were notably high. Additionally, maintaining large water tanks proved to be quite troublesome. The supply of water from these elevated tanks also generated very high water pressure, causing the water taps in many households to break due to this excessive pressure.
According to the information provided by the former WASA official, the closure of overhead water tanks primarily began in the 1980s. Some water tanks have been decommissioned since the year 2000. He recalls that the last water tank in Agargaon was shut down in 2007.
Abdul Mannan, another retired executive engineer from Dhaka WASA, said, "filling overhead tanks often resulted in system loss. Perhaps we were able to pump 10,000 gallons of water into the tank, but the delivery to the line never exceeded 9,000 gallons. Consequently, this setup was not economically viable."
The evolution of water supply in Dhaka
Dhaka's history is marked by health crises, in the form of annual epidemics and numerous deaths. The underlying cause can often be traced back to insufficient access to clean water. Before 1878, the sources of drinking water in Dhaka included the Buriganga River, several ponds, some of which were not clean.
During that period, professionals known as Sakka or Vistiwala were responsible for delivering water from one household to another. Up until the 1960s, they used muskets to transport water. However, to combat disease and improve overall well-being, the establishment of a purified water system became imperative.
Muntassir Mamoon's book "Dhakar Tukitaki" states that in 1871, Nawab Abdul Gani of Dhaka contributed fifty thousand taka for the city's improvement. This fund was intended for establishing a clean water supply. However, it fell short of the project's needs. In January 1874, Nawab Abdul Gani convened a meeting with city dignitaries, but no landlord offered financial aid.
Two prominent nautch girls, Rajalakshmi and Amirjan, pledged five hundred rupees each. In response, Nawab Gani donated an additional one lakh rupees, with the condition that Dhaka's citizens receive free access to the supplied water. Subsequently, Nawab Ahsanullah contributed fifty thousand rupees, and the government added ninety thousand rupees to the project.
By 1874, the then Viceroy initiated water infrastructure work at Chandni Ghat. Progress was moving at a sluggish pace. At one point, the municipality ran out of money, but the project wasn't finished. Subsequently, the government allocated additional funds to ensure the completion of the project. In 1878, the water works project was finished, inaugurated by Dhaka's Commissioner, FB Peacock. This marked the initiation of a purified water supply system in Dhaka.
Locals Advocate for preservation of water tanks, but WASA lacks definite plan
Prominent within diverse areas of Dhaka city, the expansive water tanks continue to captivate the attention of passersby. In certain locations, even towering structures pale in comparison to these tanks. As time has progressed, some areas have even been named after these tanks.
At the Bhattikhana water pump vicinity in Ganderia, we encountered Elahi Bakhsh, a seventy-year-old local resident. He nostalgically shared that he had spent his childhood playing around this water pump. He reminisced, "When I was a child, I'd sit on the tank at nighttime, enjoying the fresh air. I played many games under the tank. The tank holds memories for everyone in the area; an enduring part of our traditions even though it has fallen into disuse. Its location further enhances the area's aesthetics. Thus, we resisted any attempts by WASA to dismantle the tank."
Similar sentiments are echoed regarding other overhead tanks – they're deeply ingrained in the community's collective memory and serve as traditional landmarks for their respective areas. Consequently, whenever the City Corporation or WASA contemplated demolishing these tanks, strong opposition emerged.
Upon conversing with Dhaka Wasa officials, it became evident that they lack a concrete plan for the overhead water tanks. Despite prior plans to dismantle a few tanks - they were not demolished due to various obstacles. WASA currently does not harbour intentions to demolish these tanks in the foreseeable future.
Engineer AKM Shahid Uddin, recognising these tanks as a facet of the city's heritage, noted, "Dhaka WASA has perpetually faced crises, which diverted attention from this aspect. Now that the crises have abated, we will contemplate their future."