This is a collaboration between the Governance Apprenticeship Program and Environment and Climate Change Team.
Dhaka is consistently making headlines due to its poor air quality index, and aside from the city attaining a notorious reputation, it has also led to the citizens suffering from a poor quality of life. Over the past 20 years, there has been a 9% increase in the number of deaths in Bangladesh due to various diseases linked to air pollution (IHME & GBD, 2019). According to this data, Cardiovascular disorders rank highest among the causes of death, with chronic respiratory disorders coming in second. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) study estimates that air pollution is costing Dhaka city’s residents more than eight years of extra life expectancy on average (AQLI, 2022).
Despite these facts, we are not seeing increased concern among the public, or witnessing the government taking any concrete policy initiative to tackle this drastic situation. To understand how deadly the predicament has become we have to dive deeper and re-evaluate where we are standing right now.
Dhaka’s Air Pollution and its Main Causes
Dhaka’s air quality has been dropping since 2019, when it was initially found amongst the World’s Most Polluted Air chart. Since then, the city has invariably been a frontrunner in the charts, causing legitimate concerns among residents.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) gives an overall idea of the air quality of an area. Based on some of the five basic parameters of air, AQI has a range between 0 and 500. An AQI around 100 usually indicates a moderate livable condition.
The average yearly AQI has been rising in Dhaka over the past few years. In 2021, the annual average AQI was 159 which increased to 163 in 2022. In 2023, this pattern was sustained, with an AQI of 171 recorded; whereas in other cities, such as London, New York and Chattogram the average AQI was 41, 33, 120 respectively. In fact, the air quality in Dhaka hit a dismal 300 on the first day of the New Year 2024. According to the Centre for Atmospheric Pollution Studies (CAPS) at Stamford University, the highest recorded AQI of Dhaka was 404 on January 13, 2023. Another study from 2021 says that Bangladesh had the highest annual average PM2.5 concentrations weighted by population (76.9 μg/m3), followed by Chad (75.9 μg/m3), Pakistan (66.8 μg/m3), Tajikistan (59.4 μg/m3), and India (58.1 μg/m3) (IQAir, 2021).
The Crushing Population of Dhaka
Approximately, 3-4 lakh people migrate to Dhaka each year (World Bank, 2007). Currently, Dhaka approximately has 24 million residents. Succumbing to the pressure of accommodating such a growing population, Dhaka is constantly undertaking new constructions. Roads, buildings, over-bridges, and highways are always under construction, and they are the major contributor to the Particulate Matters (PM 2.5 and PM 10) commonly known as ‘dust’. The open cement/sand piles are the primary pollution sources. Moreover, the government’s mega projects such as the Metro Rail, and the Dhaka Elevated Expressway, which have taken several years to construct have further added to the growing air pollution. Most of these government construction projects are procrastinated, and they only prolong the sufferings of the city dwellers.
Dhaka, being the epicenter of Bangladesh, attracts the most mobility of vehicles and traffic. Emissions from vehicles have been disproportionately high in recent years. The main causes of this are the use of improperly maintained cars, tainted gasoline, bad traffic and road management, and insufficient parking spaces.
Diesel-powered vehicles exhibit higher levels of pollution in comparison to vehicles fueled by CNG, Octane, or LPG. They release nitrogen oxides and emit black smoke, contributing to the deterioration of air quality in urban areas. A significant number of diesel-run vehicles in Bangladesh do not meet the Vehicles Emissions Standard, leading to the release of elevated levels of pollutants into the atmosphere.
The seasonal pattern of Dhaka’s air pollution
Clearly the capital requires an extensive supply of bricks to cater to its various infrastructural projects. As a result, the potency of the pollution in Dhaka is further intensified as it is surrounded by Brick Kiln clusters; located both within the main city, and the districts Gazipur and Narayanganj,
Admittedly, these brick kilns mostly pause their operations during the monsoon and run at maximum capacity during winter. This leads to a noticeably distinct variation in air quality within the city depending on the season.
In 2023, Dhaka residents only enjoyed 8 days of good quality air, and most of those were during the monsoon season. The rain across the city causes the particulate matter and gasses to precipitate and bring down the AQI level significantly.
The one behind the shadows
Transboundary pollution coming from neighboring countries, such as: India, Nepal, and Bhutan is another source that is frequently overlooked. But they too, are major contributors to air pollution in Bangladeshi cities. Approximately 40% of Bangladesh’s pollution originates from these neighboring nations. During the drier months and winter season, these countries have the highest levels of air pollution, which contributes to the concentration of air pollution in Bangladesh. These pollutants from across South Asia travel through many routes to Dhaka city.
MD Ziaul Haque, Director of Air Quality Management of DoE, stated that transboundary air pollution is reportedly responsible for 30-40% of air pollution in Dhaka. Furthermore, Dhaka’s high population density, low levels of economic growth, poor infrastructure, and lack of pollution management at the source may worsen the issue of transboundary air pollution.
The Health Hazards
Increasing number of Dhaka’s residents have become accustomed to the drastic levels of air pollution but in recent years, there has been growing awareness. A portion of people have resorted to wearing common face masks but their efficacy is questionable due to the build-quality and how people utilize them. These masks may filter the larger molecules (PM 10), but they are unlikely to filter the invisible, smaller, and the most harmful ones (PM 2.5).
Chronic Diseases (Respiratory and Pulmonary)
Both short-term and prolonged exposure to poor and contaminated air trigger adverse health risks, leading to various symptoms and diseases. The toxicity of air pollutants may gradually reduce lung functionality, potentially resulting in lung cancer and chronic heart diseases (Hossain, et al., 2021). Additionally, both long-term and short-term exposure to unhealthy air contributes to detrimental health risks, including conditions such as type 2 diabetes, lower respiratory infections, pulmonary diseases, ischemic cardiovascular diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (Boogaard, Walker, & Cohen, 2019).
Prenatal Risks and Pregnancy Complication
Higher air pollution exposure during pregnancy is linked to increased rates of low birth weight (20-36% compared to the national average of 13.6%) and premature births (9-15.2% higher) (The Journal of Climate Change and Health).
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is identified as a major contributor, which can affect fetal development through the placenta. The consequences for children include health complications such as growth delays, respiratory issues, and susceptibility to chronic diseases.
Effect on Mental Health
A World Bank Report titled “Breathing Heavy: New Evidence on Air Pollution and Health in Bangladesh” has produced findings that indicated that high-traffic regions exhibited the highest rates of depression, with 13.7% of residents reporting symptoms. Notably, the report unveiled a gender disparity, revealing that 13.7% of women and 11.8% of men experienced depression in these pollution-affected areas. This observation suggests a potential higher susceptibility of women to the mental health effects of air pollution.
Steps Taken by the Government and Current Plans
As Dhaka is topping the charts regularly for having hazardous air, it is essential to analyze if the government is prioritizing preventive steps to combat air pollution. In retrospect a number of policies have been initiated and few ongoing plans are underway.
Beginning in 2003, the Bangladeshi government banned and gradually phased out 2-stroke baby taxis from Dhaka city and encouraged the use of motor engines designed with catalytic converters, and lead-free octane, gasoline, and diesel. The main reason for this was to reduce lead contamination of the air since at that time the concentration of lead in Dhaka’s atmosphere was extremely hazardous. As a result, the concentration fell from 463 (ng/m3) to 70 (ng/m3) in 2013, and a 41% reduction in PM2.5 concentration was also experienced leading to significant improvement in the air quality.
In addition to that, the Bangladeshi government also prohibited the use of trucks and buses that were more than 25 and 20 years old, respectively, during that time. However, in August 2023, the government decided not to carry out its decision to set a 20-year and a 25-year economic life cap for buses and trucks. Meaning that tens of thousands of old age, worn-out cars—a significant contributor to pollution—may still be on the road.
Afterwards, perhaps the sole dedicated project towards better quality air was the Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (Case) project which commenced a decade ago in 2009. The CASE project was jointly implemented by the Department of Environment, the Dhaka city authorities, and the Dhaka Transport Coordination Board. Its main goal was to increase the government agency’s ability to deal with air pollution problems efficiently. The project ended in 2019 and it has neither been renewed nor followed up with another project.
In the same year of the concluded CASE project, DoE (Department of Environment) with the help of BELA (Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association) drafted the Clean Air Bill. This was later turned into rules rather than an act in 2022. As per the rules, the DoE will come up with a national air quality management plan and implement it. According to law experts, rules can remain ineffective if a clause contradicts any other law. And thus it’s treated as just an additional duty of DoE now.
Additionally, a law that forbade the construction of brick kilns in particular locations was passed in 2013, but none of these regulations were enforced for a significant period of time because there was no oversight, authorization, or appropriate plan for their implementation. No guidelines regarding how to run the factories without endangering the environment were included in the 2013 law. Due to such circumstances, brickfield owners could continue on without spending money on green technology that would have allowed them to cut carbon emissions.
In 2019 the government initiated plans to use concrete blocks instead of bricks in all future government projects and phase out bricks totally by 2025. It had been expected that the use of environmentally friendly blocks in public construction projects would promote their use. However, according to industry insiders and the Department of Environment, reports from 2023 mention that the use of blocks in construction work is not more than 1% as 92% of regular clay bricks and 7% of auto bricks are being used in construction work. Experts state that this is due to no public agencies following the guidelines for cleaner bricks.
Md Ziaul Haque, Director of Air Quality Management at DoE, said that a strategy has been devised and funded by the World Bank to discontinue traditional brick kilns and promote the establishment of modern kilns.
The government has recently made the decision to fine contractors and monitoring officials who are involved in both public and private construction projects that cause air pollution. According to sources, the government is taking strict measures to reduce air pollution and instructions have been sent to relevant departments to implement the recommendations given by the air pollution control committee. The new government’s cabinet will supervise how these plans are carried out.
Furthermore, DNCC Mayor Atiqul Islam stated that plans have been made to sign an agreement with three organizations, World Vision Bangladesh, Dhaka North Community, and Town Federation Center for Atmospheric Pollution Studies, to find out the cause and possible remedies to reduce air pollution and elevated temperatures in the areas under its jurisdiction.
Saber Hossain Chowdhury, the newly elected minister for environment, forests, and climate change, said the government will soon launch a 100-day program to identify the sources of air pollution and make plans to combat it.
Sustainable Policy Initiative Recommendations for Combating Air Pollution in Dhaka
Not Rules But Laws
Despite the existence of regulations, neither the public nor the private sector adheres to them. Even the separate agencies tasked with monitoring are performing their duties inadequately. Although we have substantial guidelines and policies, these initiatives are not being monitored.
It is time to rethink our current situation and enact laws rather than rules which can implement stringent policies. Moreover, smooth cooperation and coordination has to be ensured between the Department of Environment, the City Corporation, and other governmental and non-governmental entities in combating air pollution.
Since adopting the Air Pollution Control Act in 2013, China has been able to combat air pollution quite efficiently. In 2014, it even declared a “war against pollution” by establishing a number of significant financial goals for environmental preservation and pollution abatement. As a result, China’s average level of particulate matter pollution has decreased by 42.3 percent between 2013 and 2021.
Implementation of Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC)
This code, revised in 2015, outlines construction standards and best practices. While not explicitly banning open storage of materials like sand and cement, BNBC emphasizes minimizing dust generation and maintaining cleanliness at construction sites. This indirectly encourages covered storage and proper transportation of such materials.
Phasing Out of Clay Bricks
Hollow concrete blocks (HCB) and interlocked soil stabilized blocks (ISSB) have lower carbon emissions than fired clay bricks (FCB). Despite government plans to gradually replace clay bricks with concrete blocks by 2025, these plans have failed to come to fruition since the relevant agencies are unwilling to carry them out. The usage of blocks in tender documents has not yet been mentioned by government agencies or banks, and block makers pay a greater tariff than brick manufacturers despite getting lower business loans. While some investors have imported machinery to make blocks but have not yet begun production, others are operating at half capacity as a result of poor demand. Blocks cannot grow in popularity without the government’s assurance in using them. If the government prohibits bricks, business owners will be forced to relocate their operations for their own benefit. Furthermore, incentives such as tax rebates and zero-interest loans should be implemented to encourage business owners to transition from bricks to blocks.
A number of strategies to mitigate the dust issue can be to fix unpaved roads, to implement dust suppression techniques at construction sites using water sprays or covering materials, and to implement stricter regulations and awareness campaigns against open waste burning. Research by the Centre for Environmental Development (CED) in “Air Quality Monitoring in Dhaka City” found that paving roads can reduce dust PM2.5 by 20-30%.
Promotion of Public transportation and Ensuring Public Participation
A large number of people avoid using public transportation because of the huge load of traffic congestion on the roads of Dhaka. In addition to that many don’t feel safe riding a bus due to the abhorrent state of the buses, the reckless drivers and the high risk of accidents. To change the scenario and encourage people to use these transports the government has to take policy initiatives and enforce strict rules and regulations to be followed with a swift monitoring system.
However, recently, the metro rail is bringing change to the situation of the capital. People reported that they were using the metro rail rather than their private cars or on-road public transportation because the former is more time-efficient. Although it’s only limited to certain areas, it is comparatively environmentally friendly.
Reducing The Use of Lead Acid Battery
According to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, about 1.5 million lead acid-based battery-run three-wheelers are running on the country’s roads which is only increasing day by day. These batteries aren’t being recycled following the ideal guidelines and this is resulting in lead seeping into the environment rapidly once again since 2014. According to a recent study conducted by SPARTAN (The Surface PARTiculate mAtter Network) the concentration of lead in the air stands at 210-22- (ng/m3)
The solution to this problem is to replace lead batteries with lithium-ion batteries which are environment friendly and have a lifeline of 5 to 9 years compared to that of lead batteries’ 1-year lifeline. Many enterprises from 2023 have started working on entering the market of lithium-ion batteries but it is still uncertain when we will see these batteries being produced in mass quantities. The government and other development sectors can play a pivotal role here by offering incentives, building awareness, and investing in research and development for the mass production of lithium-ion batteries.
Air Quality Monitoring and Enforcement
It is paramount to invest in a robust air quality monitoring network across Dhaka, to regularly publish air quality data publicly, and strengthen enforcement mechanisms for environmental regulations. Studies like “Assessment of Air Pollution Sources in Dhaka City, Bangladesh” by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health highlight the importance of accurate air quality data for better-targeted interventions.
The path to cleaner air in Dhaka is not without obstacles, despite the potential benefits of the suggested steps. Rapid implementation may be impeded by industrial expansion, urbanization, and economic restraints. Furthermore, teamwork and cooperation from all parties involved will be crucial to overcome the situation we presently face. By fostering a sense of urgency and implementing concrete measures, we can strive to improve the air quality in Dhaka and safeguard the health and well-being of its residents for generations to come.
Apprentice, Governance Apprenticeship Program &
Associate, Environment and Climate Change Team, Youth Policy Forum.
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