Sylhet : building a water-logging resilient city

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Main actors

City Government, NGO / Philanthropy, Community / Citizen Group, Public Utility, National Government

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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Ongoing since 2013/01

A community based initiative to raise awareness and ensure preservation of natural water resources through sustainable drainage systems that will help eradicate water-logging in the city of Sylhet.

Sylhet is a metropolitan city in north-eastern Bangladesh located on the banks of the Surma River, surrounded by the Jaintia, Khasi and Tripua hills. The city has a high population density with nearly 500,000 inhabitants in 26.50 square kilometres.

During Monsoon season water-logging significantly disrupts daily life in Sylhet. Water-logging refers to the saturation of soil with water. Soil may be regarded as water-logged when the water table of the groundwater is too high to conveniently permit an anticipated activity, such as agriculture.

The immediate consequences of water-logging include a shortage of usable drinking water, disruption to sanitation systems and utility and transport services. Longer-term impacts include unemployment, underemployment, reduced production levels, social disruption (school, housing, health, markets, women's mobility) and loss of earnings for low-income workers.

In 2014, Sylhet City Corporation identified water-logging as a city-wide crisis and prioritized funding to implement projects and strategies to address the issue.

Sustainable Development Goals

Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Guangzhou Award

This project was shortlisted for the 'Guangzhou Award' in 2014 in the following category: Deserving Initiative.

Sylhet, Bangladesh

Size and population development
As of the 2011 census, the city has a population of 479,837. The population growth rate of the city is 1.73. The total number of households in the city was 55,514.

Population composition
The population is comprised of 94% Sylheti and 6% Bishnupriya Manipuri, Khasi and others. While Standard Bengali is the official language, the Sylheti dialect is the main vernacular spoken in the city.

Main functions
Sylhet is located on the banks of the Surma River and is surrounded by the Jaintia, Khasi and Tripura hills. Sylhet is considered one of the most picturesque and archaeologically rich regions in South Asia, and has major Islamic Sufi shrines and Hindu holy sites.

Main industries / business
The Sylhet Metropolitan area is one of Bangladesh’s main business areas housing large numbers of shopping centres, restaurants and hotels. Numerous projects and businesses in the city have been funded by Sylhetis living and working abroad. More than 95 percent of the ethnic British Bangladeshis originated or had ancestors from this Sylhet region. Sylhet's hinterland is home to the country's largest natural gas fields, sole crude oil field, largest tea plantations, rubber, palm oil, cane, agarwood and citrus farms. Rice production in the region is one of the country's highest. Heavy industries include power plants, fertilizer plants, cement plants and liquefied petroleum gas plants. Other major industries in the region include ceramics, machinery and equipment, ready-made garments and pharmaceuticals.

Sources for city budget
National Government, Regional Government and taxes.

Political structure
Sylhet is a major city in north-eastern Bangladesh. It is the capital of Sylhet Division and Sylhet District, and was granted metropolitan city status in March 2009. Sylhet is the district-headquarters as well as the divisional headquarters of the districts of Sunamganj, Habibganj, Maulvi Bazar and Sylhet District.

Administrative structure
The Sylhet City Corporation is responsible for the services that are provided within the city which includes traffic, roads, waste collection, water supply, registrations and many others. The corporation consists of the Chairman and 22 other Commissioners, and focuses on the development of the city.

The climate of Sylhet is tropical monsoon with a predominantly hot and humid summer and a relatively cool winter. The city is within the monsoon climatic zone, with annual average maximum temperatures of 23°C (Aug-Oct) and average minimum temperature of 7°C (Jan). Nearly 80% of the annual average rainfall of 3,334 mm occurs between May and September. Each year when monsoon sets in, many areas of Sylhet are underwater for periods of time. Unplanned urbanization, lack of long term strategies and irregular maintenance contribute significantly to this.

In April 2010 Sylhet City Corporation initiated a project (USD $1.5million) to remove illegal infrastructures and excavate drainage systems. However, illegal land grabbers and influential encroachers hindered the activities and, as a result it was shut down without achieving any real progress.

In the 2013 mayoral election, water logging was a crucial campaign issue.  All candidates pledged a commitment to resolving the crisis and identified retrieving unused or dead canals from land grabbers as a key issue for reform.

In 2014 Sylhet City Corporation allocated USD $3million to address water-logging and associated issues including waste management and environmental impact.

Building a water-logging resilient city program in Sylhet involves a community based model administered through the Ward Disaster Management Committee and Community Volunteer Groups for each ward.

In January 2014, the Ward Disaster Management Committee conducted urban risk assessments in selected wards of Sylhet. The assessments identified water-logging as the number one problem in all wards.  

Specific activities for developing water-logging resilience are being implemented and include:

  • drain cleaning and maintenance
  • new drain construction
  • water supply and sanitation maintenance
  • footpath repair and construction
  • excavation of water streams
  • revised waste management strategies
  • new waste management points
  • capacity building training
  • awareness programs in classrooms, mosques and households
  • waste management workshops with business and hospitality owners

Sylhet City Corporation is the lead agency for the initiative. Financial support comes largely via the annual budget allocation from government along with additional support from the international NGO, Oxfam. 

Other resources are provided by:

  • City Corporation Disaster Management Committee
  • Ward Disaster Management Committee
  • Community Volunteers Group
  • Fire Service & Civil Defence
  • District Education Office
  • School Management Committees
  • Islamic Relief Bangladesh
  • VARD 

The impact of the program is visible across the city.

  • The number of water-logging areas has reduced overall.
  • The education and awareness programs have helped ensure that the drainage system is becoming free from house-hold garbage and other solid waste.  
  • The water and sanitation supply is cleaner
  • Schools, businesses, markets and mosques in most areas have remained open during monsoon season
  • Disruption to transport and utility services has been minimal

As the initiative is led and financed by Sylhet City Corporation there are no major organizational or financial barriers. The main challenges are to continue to fund and manage the project over time and keep the community engaged to ensure long-term success of the project.

The Sylhet model shows that an integrated approach is required to reverse the consequences of water-logging. The planning phase needs to be designed in a participatory way to include community and government working together. Most importantly education and awareness programs aimed at schools and families are vital to the on-going success of eradicating water-logging from any city.

- Sylhet, Bangladesh, , Building a Water-logging Resilient Sylhet City, Guangzhou Award, 2014


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Guangzhou Award
Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou Award

Institution | Urban Award

Jakki Mann
Melbourne , Australia

Jakki Mann

Individual | Project Manager, Circles of Sustainability

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