Dhaka slums fight fires but problems loom

A Z M Anas –
Bilkis Begum has lived on the lakeside in Dhaka’s Korail slum for 16 years, but in December 2016, her extended family’s 12 houses were razed to the ground by a fire.
The inferno destroyed the oven her husband, Shahid Gazi, used for his bakery and the fridges he relied on for his business selling leftover chicken meat from Chinese restaurants.
For the Gazis, it was a struggle to cobble together the $3,000 they needed to rebuild their homes and business.
They borrowed $900 from moneylenders, and found the rest from relatives and friends.
They also got tin, pillars and a little cash aid from Bangladesh-based development agency BRAC. In addition, they received pro-bono help from architects like Sheikh Rubaiya Sultana, who helped redesign the neighbourhood to protect it better against future fires.
“Architects have social responsibility,” said Sultana, an assistant professor at BRAC University in Dhaka. “I watched the fire before my very eyes, but couldn’t do anything then.”
The Gazi family now has eight new units and the couple are back in business, running a small restaurant on the old site.
“We couldn’t have stood back on our own feet unless we got (this) support,” said Begum, 32, a mother of three.
A team of 16 architects, planners, engineers and students, brought together by BRAC, has tested out simple, cheap design solutions to rebuild Dhaka’s two biggest slums after fires destroyed some 650 homes in late 2016, affecting 2,500 people. The new approach aims to tackle the ever-present threat of fires in Dhaka’s crowded slums, while improving living conditions for residents.
But in a city where less than 10 per cent of areas are planned, altering the slumscape is a tall order.
One major challenge is working out what is feasible for slum residents who have no legal rights to the land they live on.
Ashekur Rahman, an urban programme specialist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Bangladesh, said the transitory existence of many slum dwellers is a major impediment to keeping them safe from threats like fires in the longer term.
Many are seasonal migrants who split their time between villages and cities, limiting their access to services and permanent accommodation.
Government providers worry that improving services in informal settlements could attract more migrants from rural areas, Rahman said.
“Weak and ill-defined land tenure and property rights pose big threats to resilience-building and are considered the underlying causes of the poverty and vulnerability of the urban poor in Bangladesh,” he added.
Sandwiched between Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan and Banani neighbourhoods, Korail — which sprang up in the 1980s —sprawls over some 170 acres of land owned by three government ministries.
It is home to as many as 100,000 residents, including rickshaw drivers, domestic helpers, garment workers and small traders. Fire is just one of the threats inhabitants face on a daily basis, which include eviction, drugs, crime, police harassment and extortion.
After digitally mapping the fire-hit areas, the design team led by Dhaka-based J A Architects Ltd consulted with residents who each agreed to give up a tiny amount of space to widen access roads and narrow lanes so that fire trucks and ambulances could enter if another blaze breaks out.
The group of experts was appalled by the unhygienic conditions in the slums.
In summer, the tin shacks are “like ovens”, said Shamim Hossain, manager with BRAC’s urban development programme. To improve living conditions, the team made modifications to dwellings, such as adding windows, wire netting and transparent plastic to let in air and light.
They also helped rebuild homes in Sattola slum, which suffered a major fire in December 2016 too, destroying 115 homes in just 10 minutes.
Made homeless overnight, residents had to pass more than three cold winter months under the open sky. — Reuters