It was for all intents and purposes the first image to be circulated widely in the international media of the Bangladesh cricket team’s disastrous tour of India that wrapped up rather tamely this past week: the Tigers were having their first practice session of the tour at the old Ferozeshah Kotla Stadium (very recently renamed after Arun Jaitley) in Delhi, where the first of three T20Is that preceded the Test series would be played on November 3rd, and images of a number of the players, most notably opening batsman Liton Das, wearing anti-pollution face masks to guard against the thick smog enveloping the Indian capital at the time quickly went viral.
It was the week after Diwali, which acts almost as an annual marker for alarm bells to start ringing for Delhiites that the air is about to get much harder to breathe. The holiday fireworks herald the arrival of winter, when farmers in Delhi’s neighbouring regions of Punjab and Haryana set fire to their fields to clear excess crops, and the dust and fumes from both settle over the capital in something approaching the perfect storm of pollution.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) around the Arun Jaitley Stadium at the time the Bangladesh players were training was touching 400, which is the optimum range of the ‘very poor’ category (AQI 300-400). On the day of the T20I, the AQI, which measures levels of PM 2.5 -tiny particulate matter in the air that are less than or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter, hence more likely to penetrate deep into the respiratory system - deteriorated to above 900, way over the 500-level that qualifies as “severe-plus”. In the early part of November, Delhi was regularly ranked as the most polluted city, or at least capital, in the world on any given day. By the end of the month though, it had a nice, friendly neighbour to thank for stripping it of that dubious honour.
The pollution level in Dhaka reached extreme levels in the last week of November, as winter, the dry season, started arriving across the deltaic landscape of Bangladesh. With no precipitation to wash away the discharge of dust from the constant construction works and road digging (the price of development), Dhakaites must cope with serious health risks, according to environment and health experts.
The city authorities must act proactively to clean up major roads by spraying water regularly alongside enforcing the law and strengthening monitoring of construction projects, they advised, as a number of measures air pollution are depicting how Dhaka’s air quality is getting worse day by day with the onset of winter.
According to Air Visual, the company behind the most widely accepted international air quality monitoring index (AQI), Dhaka’s air was the worst in the world throughout most of November 24. It held on to its place the next day, with an AQI of 242 at 8am (a good AQI is between 0-50), manifesting unhealthy and alarming air quality. Dhaka also ranked the worst in the AQI on three consecutive days towards the end of the preceding week. The measurement for Dhaka by the way, is taken at the US Embassy in Baridhara, adjoining one of the city’s great thoroughfares. One may expect it to get much worse if taken in, say the industrial zone of Tejgaon, or Uttara where a lot of civil construction work is going on.
“Dust pollution intensifies every year during winter, but the authorities concerned have no preparedness and action plans to deal with the problem,” said urban expert and green activist Iqbal Habib.
Talking to our sister newsagency UNB, Habib said there is no sincere effort from the government’s part to check the major sources of dust and air pollution -- brick kilns, black smoke from vehicles and unplanned construction works.
Narrating the main reasons behind the serious pollution during winter, Habib said, “Usually, all types of construction work increases significantly in the city during the dry season. So, vehicles carrying construction materials like sand, cement and bricks generate huge dust. Brick kilns increase their production in full swing in this season to meet the growing demand for bricks, badly polluting the air quality. Besides, the digging of roads and earth for development activities and building construction also produce huge dust.”
The construction work on Metro Rail in the city alongside unplanned digging of many roads by the government agencies are contributing to serious dust pollution, he said, adding, “The two city corporations have enough manpower to clean up the major roads with spraying water regularly to reduce dust pollution.”
Environmentalist Ainun Nishat said dust (including PM2.5) has become a big source of pollution in the capital during the dry season due to various unplanned construction works, taking its heavy toll on human health.
“Air pollution is growing in Dhaka due to the apathy of the government. The government has a big project to check air pollution under which footpaths are developed and foot-over bridges are made. I don’t understand what the relation between air pollution and footpaths and over bridges,” he observed.
Dr Nishat, Professor Emeritus at BRAC University, said dust pollution is on the rise for lack of preventive measures, action plans, initiatives and enforcement of law.
“There’s no alternative to properly cleaning up roads by spraying water regularly and ensuring a proper waste management to reduce the dust pollution. The construction companies must be forced to follow construction rules like covering construction sites and spraying water to control dust. Besides, steps should also be taken to check the release of pollutants and black smokes from different industries, vehicles, water vessels and nearby brick kilns.”
Admission of duty
Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Md Shahab Uddin told UNB in an interview that the two city corporations are the main responsible bodies for checking dust pollution by cleaning up roads and spraying water during winter in the capital. He said they have already warned the construction companies implementing various development activities to follow the guidelines to check dust pollution. “We’re going to issue a letter instructing them to control the sources of dust generated from the construction related works.”
Besides, the minister said, the Environment Department will conduct mobile courts against those construction companies flout the building code and rules. He said brick kilns are still the main worry for the environment as 58 percent of air pollution in Dhaka City is caused by those. “We’re working out plans to combat it.”
Also during the week, the environment minister convened a meeting “to find out how to protect people from the worsening air pollution,” prior to which he acknowledged that Dhaka was now the most polluted city in the world. “Dhaka was in the third and fourth position among the world’s polluted cities several months ago but it is now number one as air pollution has increased at intolerable level in the last two or three days,” Shahab Uddin said.
Shahabuddin made the announcement before an inter-ministerial meeting on air and sound pollution in capital Dhaka at his ministry.
“There are many reasons for air pollution in Dhaka. There must be coordination in building public and private infrastructure, and among the agencies working with utility services. Proper management of various projects, including the elevated expressway, must be ensured,” the minister said.
Mentioning that the air pollution in Dhaka city is deteriorating day by day, the minister on that day said the overall responsibility of dealing with pollution lies with the Department of Environment. Shahabuddin noted that the Department of Environment and the World Bank published a research report on the sources of air pollution in Bangladesh in March, 2019. According to the research findings, the three main sources are brick kilns, fumes of vehicles and dust from construction sites.
Pointing out that dust particles are contributing to the city’s worsening air pollution due to carrying out construction work without putting the site under cover, the minister highlighted the need to take effective steps to control air pollution in Dhaka by all government and private agencies or organisations.
Reflection of proper environmental management while transporting and storing soil, sand and other materials, timely repair of roads and regularly sprinkling water to reduce air pollution must be seen on major infrastructural and development projects like the elevated expressway and metrorail, he added.
The minister has mostly made the right noises in firstly acknowledging the problem and secondly taking responsibility. Now it remains to be seen if he can actually do something about it. There is space for out--of-the-box thinking leading to action that can mitigate the problem to some extent. Delhi’s “odd/even” driving scheme, under which odd and even numbered vehicles ply on alternate days, kicked in on November 4 this year, and has been appreciated by residents and observers alike. Such a scheme may be pertinent for Dhaka City particularly in light of a statistic cited by the minister himself during the week, that the number of vehicles plying the city roads had gone up to 619,654 from just 369,000 “several months ago”.
Whose call is it anyway?
A number of points of frustration still cropped up. Air Commodore Zahid Hossain, chief of waste management of Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), told UNB that they have been spraying water on the main roads of the city since November 21 to tackle dust pollution. He said they had planned to spray water on the roads from November 11, but they could not do it as Wasa declined to supply them water for it.
Under the circumstances, Zahid said they are going to procure nine road-sweeping vehicles with which they will be able to clean up the roads using little water. “These vehicles are very effective to remove dust from roads and keeping them clean.”
Dhaka North City Corporation waste management department executive engineer Abul Hasnat Mohammad Ashraful Alam said that the dust problem has turned acute due to road digging for development works. “We’ve started spraying water on the streets. We’ve also asked the construction company implementing metro rail project to spray water every day on their own.”
A big fat South Asian problem
Although for a long time dealing with pollution may have been regarded as something of a ‘first world headache’, as we learn more and more, it becomes clear that anyone who chooses to ignore the issue does so at their peril. And studies show the countries of South Asia, including Bangladesh, have more to lose from such indifference. According to Greenpeace and AirVisual, the region is home to the world’s four most polluted countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. In that order (see chart).
According to the same study, 18 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are also located in the same region, with 22 of the top 30 in India alone.
Director General of the Directorate General Health service (DGHS) Prof Abul Kalam Azad said dust pollution causes serious harm to public health. “People may get affected with serious diseases like lung problems, cancer, respiratory problems due to dust pollution.”
In fact, air pollution will shorten the life expectancy of children born today by an average of 20 months and will have the greatest impact in South Asia, according to a study released earlier this year. The State of Global Air report, published by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia, says air pollution is the fifth leading cause of early death worldwide—responsible for more deaths than malaria, road accidents, malnutrition or alcohol.
However it warns "the loss of life expectancy is not borne equally", with children in South Asia set to have their lives cut short by 30 months because of a combination of outdoor air pollution and dirty indoor air. In East Asia the study says air pollution will shorten children's lives by an estimated 23 months—compared with around 20 weeks for children in developed parts of Asia Pacific and North America.
The report, which uses data up to the end of 2017, estimates that if air pollution levels were brought within World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, Bangladesh life expectancy would see the highest expected gain, at nearly 1.3 years. India, Nigeria, and Pakistan would all see average life expectancy increase by around one year.
The top five countries with the highest mortality rate due to air pollution were all in Asia: China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. In total, the report says 147 million years of healthy life were lost in 2017 globally due to pollution. Exposure to household air pollution—mostly from people burning coal, wood or charcoal to cook or heat their homes—is most common in South Asia, East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The issue is far more serious than the discourse in the region gives it credit for, and that must change. If not now, when?