Cities can be dense without being overpopulated. But in the world’s most crowded city, the drains can’t cope – creating a grim new job

After decades cleaning the sewers of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s crowded capital, Sujon Lal Routh has seen plenty of misery. But the tragedy of 2008 was the worst. After a day of heavy rainfall left the streets flooded – as usual – seven workers were assigned to clear a blocked manhole in Rampura, in the centre of the city. Normally, cleaners cling to ropes to stop them getting sucked in by surging water when they clear blockages. But this group were new to the job. “They didn’t know about the impending danger or how to work in that situation,” says Sujon. “So, sewer water swallowed them.”

Bystanders smashed the road open with hammers and shovels. Eventually, they dragged out three workers, dead. Another four were seriously injured; one later died in hospital. “The accident instilled fear in us, and for months we were even afraid to look into the sewers,” says Sujon.

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