For tourists, Cox's Bazar is a holiday destination with pristine coconut palm-lined sandy beaches, sunshine and tropical weather. But for local residents, the seaside city is an unlivable urban jungle that has no central waste management, no sewerage network and no smooth road transportations.
Around one crore tourists visit Cox's Bazar – a southeastern Bangladeshi district – every year. The district town is also the home of around 2 lakh people, plus nearly 1,000 local and foreign aid officials working at the Rohingya refugee camps.
The burgeoning tourism sector centring on Cox's Bazar propelled an unplanned urbanisation there – turning the sleepy beach town into a busy and cramped area lacking minimum civic amenities.
Household garbage scattered all around, fetid wastewater flooding the streets and sewage dumped in the rivers make the environment and ecology of the tropical paradise bleed badly amid an unplanned tourism boom.
"The city expanded without any plan. It is really difficult to undo the unplanned constructions, but we are trying our best to make the city liveable again," Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Forkan Ahmed, chairman of the Cox's Bazar Development Authority, told The Business Standard.
He said the authorities face numerous challenges in constructing roads and the sewerage network. Private properties and mushroomed tourist accommodations are an impediment to the construction bid.
Tension between construction boom and environment
Around 750 hotels, motels and guest houses have mushroomed between the city's Holiday intersection and Marine Drive. Of them, there are 24 big hotels, including six star-rated tourist accommodations. Besides, 250 restaurants and eateries are sprawled all over the area.
All the buildings were constructed in the last one decade without any urbanisation plan. Besides, most of these constructions do not comply with environmental guidelines, according to the Department of Environment.
A road expansion of the Cox's Bazar Development Authority now faces trouble thanks to the unplanned buildings.
In 2019, the High Court (HC) banned construction within 300 metres of the seashore. Despite the HC ban, many tourist accommodations were constructed right on the beach with no visible measures to evict the already built ones in place.
The authorities estimate that Cox's Bazar town generates 145 tonnes of sewage per day while the municipality can deal with only 20 tonnes. The rest of the human waste from the hotels and motels is carried straight into the rivers and the sea.
"We have asked the hotels and motels that are without treatment plants to set up septic tanks. Besides, tourist accommodations on the seashore have been served with notices to move away," said Sheikh Muhammad Nazmul Huda, deputy director at the Department of Environment, Cox's Bazar office.
Mohammad Nurul Karim, senior vice-president of Cox's Bazar Hotel Motel Owners Association, however, claimed the establishments had been with permission from the authorities.
"But, we are ready to comply with the guidelines of the Cox's Bazar master plan," he added.
Beaches littered with garbage
Sugandha beach, one of the key tourist points, was found littered with household garbage last week. A cleaner of the beach management committee was piling up the waste on the seashore.
Such piled-up garbage was also in the backyard of the five-star hotel the Cox Today. A nearby drain in front of the Forest Department rest house carried pitch black water and solid waste.
Tourists say they have to face the stinky nightmare in order to go to the longest sea beach in the world.
"We thought Cox's Bazar was neat and clean and welcoming. But we were shocked as soon as we got off the bus," said Meher Afroze, a tourist who came to spend the holidays with her husband.
"Even the beaches are littered with dirt," said the husband, Abrar Hossain.
"Our guests can enjoy the sea view from the rooms. But the piled-up garbage on the beach is an eyesore that sends a negative first impression of the city," said Akramul Bashar Chowdhury, chief executive officer at the Sea Princess Hotel.
Irregularities mar waste management
Apart from the tourist spots, the town's waste management in the residential areas was found marred by irregularities as the dustbins were overwhelmed. Residents alleged that the municipality cleaning staff do not collect the garbage regularly.
They said rainwater washes away the solid waste into the water bodies in the monsoon, which eventually leads to waterlogging and over-flooded streets.
The municipality has 500 cleaning staff who are supposed to collect the waste by 8am every day and carry it to the landfill.
The five-acre landfill on the bank of the Bakkhali River has already been exhausted. Rains wash away and erode the heap, pushing it into the waters and affecting the ecology of the river.
"Waste management lies at the centre of a sustainable tourism industry. We need to rearrange the city to attract local and foreign visitors," said Santus Kumar Deb, chairman of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Dhaka University.
Dilapidated roads, immense sufferings
With numerous puddles and cracks, most of the major roads, streets and lanes in Cox's Bazar are dilapidated. After a brief shower, they turn into a nightmare for commuters, prompting huge tailbacks.
Joinal Abedin, a trader at the Sugandha point of the town, said his shop is just a kilometre from his home and the trip used to take just 10 minutes.
"But now I take a five-kilometre detour to avoid the bad roads. Business people are in real trouble as customers do not want to come here due to the poor road condition," he noted.
Poor drainage, mosquito menace
Locals said there were 43 canals and natural rainwater drainage. Currently, most of them have been wiped off the map while the smaller drains remain clogged with solid waste.
The clogged drains have turned into perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, intensifying the mosquito menace. Besides, the poor drainage leads to waterlogging in the monsoon.
Now the Cox's Bazar Development Authority is talking about constructing a rainwater drainage network by the roads.
Revival efforts too little, too late?
Abu Morshed Chowdhury, president of the Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said he had contacted the relevant authorities multiple times to discuss planned urbanisation, waste management and smooth road transportation, but to no avail.
"The town will be totally unliveable if the callousness continues," Morshed said in frustration.
The Business Standard made several attempts to reach Cox's Bazar Municipality Mayor Mujibur Rahman about his election manifesto of "clean and modern Cox's Bazar". He was not available.
AKM Torikul Alam, chief executive officer of the municipality, also declined to make any comment.
The government on 10 June approved the development project proposal of the Cox's Bazar master plan. The formulation of the master plan will take two years and the army will be implementing 95% of it.
Cox's Bazar Development Authority Chairman Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Forkan Ahmed has high hopes for the plan, saying it will help turn Cox's Bazar into a planned seaside tourist city.