Two buildings close to Chattogram's Gulzar canal in late December last year tilted during the canal excavation work by the Chattogram Development Authority, which triggered panic among locals. A similar incident occurred six months ago.
Rescue agencies and city planners now fear that hundreds of such illegally-built establishments might also face collapse as the CDA continues to dig 36 out of the altogether 57 canals to improve the city drainage system.
"The illegally constructed buildings on the banks of different canals are at multidimensional risks. Even the areas are too dense to allow rescue operations in case of an accident," Md Faruq Hossain Sikder, assistant director of Chattogram's Fire Service and Civil Defence, told The Business Standard.
"The risks of collapsing buildings on the canal banks develop when the CDA removes the mud from the bottom of the canals. It is also a serious concern for the dredging workers as well as local people," said Md Shah Ali, director of the CDA project for preventing waterlogging in the city.
They urged the building owners to demolish their illegally-built buildings or the portions of the establishments on their own so that the CDA could continue its dredging.
The development agency was assigned to excavate the about-to-die 36 canals four years ago. The overseer, Chattogram City Corporation, initiated designing another project to revive the rest of the 21 canals through dredging.
Meanwhile, during the excavation work, the CDA evicted at least 3,600 establishments. However, the authorities concerned are yet to make a complete list of the illegally constructed buildings.
According to the city development agency, constructing buildings or setting up any kind of establishments on 12 feet of land near the canal banks is completely illegal as the land belongs to the canal.
However, on a recent visit, TBS found hundreds of residential and commercial multi-storey buildings and markets on the banks. Even mosques, madrasas, and universities were seen there.
A 10-storey building, named Sanman Sardar Villa, near Firingi Bazar's kitchen market, was seen having a portion of the basement and a pillar on a canal, crossing its bank. At least 50 houses were also found on the canal land in the market area.
In the Sadarghat area, a five-storey restaurant – Hotel Al Halim – was erected by occupying canal land. The situation was the same at Majhirghat, Chaktai Fisheries Ghat, Basundhara and in different other areas.
JPI Garment, Premier University and University of Science and Technology Chattogram were some of the key entities with their facilities set up on the canal banks.
"Canal bank soil is soft, which is why it is risky to accommodate high-rise buildings. However, the illegal buildings have been erected without soil test and sound structural plans," said Md Jahangir Alam, former vice-chancellor of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology.
Even earthquake jolts could make the buildings collapse, he added.
The CDA gives approval for constructing buildings in the city area. It clears an application in 8 phases. Besides, the certificate needs to be renewed every five years. Many have therefore raised the question of how the buildings were constructed illegally on the canal banks.
When asked about the matter, CDA Chief Engineer Kazi Hasan Bin Shams told TBS that people were getting approval of their buildings according to particular designs. "Later, they change the design to grab extra land."
"We cannot monitor all the time due to a shortage in our workforce. However, 3,600 establishments have so far been evicted during the canal dredging," he added. ***