As winter sets in, the quality of air in Dhaka poses major health risks to citizens with pollution reaching severe levels.
The prevalence of particulate matter in the air has multiplied beyond the tolerable limit, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.
Dust generated by construction projects such as the metro rail, among others, permeates the air in addition to the plumes of smoke emitted by nearby brick kilns.
According to a study by IQ AirVisual, a Swiss-based group that gathers air-quality data globally, and Greenpeace, Dhaka was the second most polluted capital in the world behind New Delhi in 2018.
Growing concerns over the poor air quality eventually prompted the judiciary to step in as the court ordered the authorities to spray water in dust-prone areas of the city twice a day in a bid to curb pollution.
Yet, the level of pollution in the capital remains alarming, particularly in the absence of any visible initiative by the government to alleviate the situation, according to bdnews24.com.
A lack of coordination between different departments of the government is further hampering efforts to control air pollution, said a Department of Environment official.
‘VERY UNHEALTHY’ AIR
Particle pollution, also called particulate matter or PM, is a mixture of hazardous solid and liquid particles in the air that can lead to serious health issues. The particles vary in sizes, ranging from 2.5 (PM2.5) to 10 (PM10) micrometres in diameter, and its prevalence in an area is used to determine the quality of the air.
For context, an Air Quality Index or AQI rating of 0-50 represents ‘good’ quality of air while 51-100 is considered ‘moderate’ and 101-150 is deemed ‘dangerous’. But the air quality is classified as ‘unhealthy’ when the PM levels reach 150-200, ‘very unhealthy’ at 201-300 and ‘hazardous’ at 301-500.
The Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (ÇASE) project measures the ultra-micro PM2.5 at 11 points within the jurisdiction of the city corporations.
According to the DoE, the quality of the air deteriorated to ‘unhealthy’ levels at the start of November. The PM levels were consistently above 150 before dropping below 100 under the influence of Cyclone Bulbul.
But the AQI score soared to a ‘very unhealthy’ 230 on Nov 11 after the effects of the cyclone passed.
Unplanned construction, smoke emissions from vehicles and the burning of bricks are the major causes of air pollution ahead of winter every year, said Air Quality Management Project Director Ziaul Haque.
“The AQI was below 200 until October this year but it shot past 200 over the last four days due to a lack of rain and increased construction work,” he said.
FROM DAWN TO DUST
Most roads in the capital's major residential hubs such as Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Uttara and Old Dhaka are beset with dust.
Amid the ongoing construction of a road stretching from Mirpur 14 to Bhashantek, residents have to toil through mud during the rainy season and dust when it’s dry.
A city corporation vehicle sprays water on the road every morning only for the streets to be buried by dust after it dries up under the sun.
Areas such as Kalshi Road, ECB junction, Mirpur 12, Lalbagh, Azimpur, Chawkbazar, Begumbazar, Imamganj and different parts of Uttara are particularly afflicted with the dust problem.
“Sometimes trucks passing through stir up the pollution on the road. The place gets muddied by even the slightest bit of rain,” lamented Zakaria Hossain Khan, a banker residing in Imamganj.
“The utility service providers dig up roads here almost every other day. The environment has turned very unhealthy and I’ve never seen the authority spray water here,” he added.
Rashedul Alam, a resident of Mohammadpur's Tajmahal Road, said, “I ride my bicycle most of the time but it has become almost impossible to do so due to the dust. Sometimes there’s no visibility. It becomes more challenging when I have my son accompany me. He feels a lot of discomfort when dust enters his eyes.”
GROWING HEALTH RISKS
The risk of various diseases is aggravated by the deteriorating air quality during winter, according to experts.
Rising pollution levels increase the risk of respiratory diseases, said Prof ABM Abdullah, dean of the Department of Medicine at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
“We are now experiencing dry weather. Apart from respiratory diseases, people are also susceptible to skin conditions while the elderly could experience body aches and headaches. Children and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to air pollution.”
EFFORTS FALL SHORT
The steps taken by the two city corporations to combat pollution have left citizen aggrieved.
Dhaka South City Corporation has no water supply of its own. It relies on Dhaka WASA for the water which it sprays on different roads under its jurisdiction.
But the DSCC has not been able to continue these efforts this year as Dhaka WASA stopped supplied water, said Millatul Islam, adviser to the DSCC’s Waste Management Department.
“They provided us with water last year but not this time around. They said the water is for drinking and not for containing dust. We’re trying to resolve the issue with them,” he said.
WASA’s Acting Managing Director Abul Kashem did not respond to bdnews24.com’s phone calls and text messages for comment on the matter.
Meanwhile, the Dhaka North City Corporation or DNCC is spraying water twice a day in the 500km area within its jurisdiction using 12 water bowsers, said Engineer Abul Hasnat, in-charge of Technical Division in DNCC.
“The water is collected from three deep tube wells in Mohakhali, Gabtali and Mirpur. In emergency cases, we take water from Dhaka WASA. There’s no hindrance in spraying water on roads other than traffic congestion,” he said.
The government’s initiative to prevent air pollution is ‘inadequate’, according to Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon's General Secretary Abu Naser.
“It (initiative to curb air pollution) is quite inadequate in terms of what is needed. Nothing is being done to prevent the pollution caused by the brick fields. Nothing is being done to stop construction work which is violating the rules,” he said.
But the authorities have shut down 130 traditional brick kilns in an effort to reduce air pollution, said Ziaul.
“We are trying to prevent the air quality from becoming extremely unhealthy. We’re trying to control it by closing brick fields, restricting road digging activities, building construction work, smoke emissions and waste burning.”
WATER NOT THE ONLY SOLUTION
The main source of air pollution is the dust stirred up by construction activities and vehicles plying the roads, including the transportation of soil and sand.
Spraying water alone will not improve the situation as the amount of dust increases during the dry season when there is also a shortage of water, said Masud Rana, former adviser to CASE project.
He recommends publishing the air quality forecast to allow people to take preventative measures against air pollution.
“The American Embassy is publishing an hourly AQI reading on a website through the station set up in its premises. The government should forecast the air quality in the cities. Developed countries – and even India -- forecast the air quality to allow people to avoid the polluted air,” said Masud.
It is imperative that public and private organisations draw up and implement short- and long-term projects in line with the socio-economic conditions of the country to control air pollution during the dry season, added Masud.
“Without such measures, air pollution will cripple the nation in terms of health, intellect and environment.”