In response to public interest litigation filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB), Bangladesh's High Court recently issued a nine-point directive to authorities to tackle the capital's life-threatening air pollution.
As inhabitants of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, we find ourselves in a distressing period. With every breath, our lungs are subjected to harmful pollutants, transforming the experience of residing in Dhaka into a perilous endeavor akin to knowingly ingesting poison. The denizens of this metropolis are involuntarily exposed to toxic air with each inhalation. On the morning of February 1 at 11 am, Dhaka's Air Quality Index (AQI) reached an alarming score of 346, This categorizes Dhaka's air quality as 'Hazardous.' Notably, an AQI score between 151-200 is deemed 'Unhealthy,' while a score between 201-300 signifies 'Very Unhealthy' air. Any score exceeding 301 is characterized as 'Hazardous' or 'Dangerous.' Is this a mere reflection of a single unfavorable day? Regrettably, the answer is negative. The year 2023 marked one of the most polluted in terms of air quality over the past eight years.
This kind of news is not good for Dhaka or the country's residents. Rather, it is a cause for concern. The famous medieval medical scientist Ibn Sina said in his research findings that if no dust particles entered the human body through breathing or otherwise, then one could live for hundreds of thousands of years. This statement makes it clear that clean, dust-free and pure air has an important contribution to human longevity and healthy living. Conversely, polluted air or a polluted environment plays an important role in reducing life expectancy.
According to WHO statistics, the number of people worldwide who die each year from road accidents, smoking and diabetes - the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affecting the respiratory system caused by air pollution claims even more lives. Environmental and medical science shows that in 2012, Bangladesh was one of the top five countries with the highest number of COPD deaths worldwide. Because the level of air pollution in the major cities of Bangladesh, including the capital Dhaka, is extremely high.
Air shrouded in black smoke
The picture of air pollution and its harmful effects is extremely worrying. Not just in Dhaka, environmental pollution is there all over the country. According to a report published in the influential global health journal The Lancet, Bangladesh tops the list in deaths caused by environmental pollution. Dhaka has been one of the world's worst cities to live for years, largely due to its environmental pollution. Of the harmful components present in Dhaka's air, PM 2.5 is the deadliest for the human body, according to WHO. PM 2.5 easily enters the body through breathing, increases various respiratory and heart diseases, and can also cause asthma and lung cancer, according to WHO. About 1 million 124 thousand 400 people die in the country every year due to air pollution.
The main causes behind this air pollution can be broadly identified as construction work, brick kilns and industry, vehicles, waste burning, and transboundary air pollution. In Dhaka, small and large buildings are constructed and roads are repaired throughout the year. Additionally, major projects like the metro rail and elevated expressways have been added in recent years. Construction work generates a lot of dust which mixes with the air and pollutes it, although there are specific guidelines from the Department of Environment for temporary sheds or barricades at construction sites. Experts say most brick kilns in Bangladesh still operate with primitive methods. Coal and wood are used as fuel in these brick kilns. As a result, plenty of smoke is generated from these along with pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide and carbon dioxide which mix with the air. Although there is a law called the Brick Manufacturing and Kiln Establishment (Control) Act 2013 (Amended 2019) to reduce air pollution, it does not seem to be implemented.
If you stand on any street in the capital for a while, you will see that the air is shrouded in black smoke with unfit vehicles, especially buses and trucks, speeding with a horrible noise. Due to negligence in the responsibilities of the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority and traffic police, such vehicles can still be seen all around the capital. According to CAPS' nationwide survey of air pollution in 64 districts of the country in 2021, there are about 1,200 brick kilns and several thousand small and large industries around Dhaka which are among the major causes of pollution. Experts say most of the waste-burning areas in Dhaka have higher levels of air pollution. Methane gas is produced where garbage dumps are located. Often to avoid the stench of this methane gas, cleaners set fire there. Although Bangladesh's air remains good during the rainy season, polluted air enters Bangladesh from Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of India during January-February as a "transboundary effect". This is called transboundary air pollution.
Need for urgent action
In response to public interest litigation filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB), Bangladesh's High Court recently issued a nine-point directive to authorities to tackle the capital's life-threatening air pollution. Directives focused on enforcing vehicle emission standards, closing illegal factories, ensuring transportation trucks remain covered, stopping open waste burning, and coordinating actions between agencies.
The court further asked what had happened with a $300 million World Bank-funded project to improve Dhaka's air quality and environment. Authorities were asked to account for how the money was utilized, what environmental benefits were achieved, and how the public interest was served.
With Dhaka facing a public health emergency due to poisonous air, authorities must prioritize strict enforcement of air quality rules for construction sites, industries, vehicles and waste disposal. Coordinated efforts between agencies, and utilizing funds already allocated for clean air measures, can help the city combat pollution.
Individuals in positions of authority display a certain level of indifference towards the matter of air pollution. Rather than translating their rhetoric into tangible actions, they seem more inclined towards making grand statements in seminars. The realization that overlooking the issue of air pollution could have adverse consequences for them has not fully permeated their consciousness. They, too, are compelled to inhale the deleterious air, as it poses a threat to their respiratory health. Therefore, it would be immensely beneficial for the nation if those occupying high positions acknowledged the severity of issues like air pollution and acted on them.
(The writer is a Dhaka-based columnist. Views are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)