• Monday, Mar 30, 2020
  • Last Update : 10:14 pm

Will Dhaka ever get clean air?

  • Published at 08:54 pm February 8th, 2020
Air Pollution
Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

58% of the particulate pollutants come from brick kilns around and inside Dhaka, 18% from road dust and soil dust, 10% from vehicles, 8% from the burning of biomass and 6% from other sources

In an attempt to reduce air pollution, the government has shut down 428 illegal brick kilns out of a total of 2,087 in operation around Dhaka, the single largest source of air pollution in the city. Even so, the capital has frequently made it to the list of world cities with the worst air quality. 

Experts suggest there is a need to re identify the sources of air pollution and make massive changes in current practices to achieve cleaner air.     

Poor performance, the violation of laws, or simply negligence of duties of at least 29 ministries, government departments, and organizations are directly responsible for the deterioration of air quality in Dhaka. A high profile committee headed by the secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), directed them to the best possible actions with specific directions, following a High Court order on November 26 last year. 

Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

According to the Department of Environment (DoE), 58% of the particulate pollutants come from brick kilns around and inside Dhaka, 18% from road dust and soil dust, 10% from vehicles, 8% from the burning of biomass, and 6% from other sources. 

After being directed by the High Court on January 13, the DoE successfully shutdown 428 illegal brick kilns in surrounding districts and fined Tk 87,064,000 from December 1 to January 30. However, that is hardly a dent since there were 7,900 brick kilns in Bangladesh as of 2018, and of them, 2,087 operate around Dhaka. 

As of Saturday, there is no data on the exact number of legal and illegal brick kilns, because only when brick kilns fail to renew their licenses do they become illegal. 

DoE officials said they will continue their drives in phases to shutdown the illegal ones, but there is no specific deadline for it.

Governmental organizations such as the Department of Public Works and City Corporations burning waste under the open sky, is a common scenario across the city. 

Dr Shariar Hossain, secretary general of Environment and Social Development Organization, said: “Polythene, which is carcinogenic and toxic, is a huge concern in city waste. Furthermore, it is a major cause of airborne diseases and the reason behind many deaths. The burning of polythene must stop,” he added.

Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Meanwhile, DoE managed to shut down 12 tyre burning units and seven battery recycling factories. The DoE also collected Tk 485,000 in fines from nine big projects, including the Metro Rail construction, in the last two months. 

Despite these moves from the concerned authorities, Dhaka’s air quality became the world’s worst on February 6. According to Air Visual’s Live Air Quality Index (AQI) city ranking, Dhaka was on the top of the list at 3pm with a score of 177. Kathmandu at 173 stood second, while Kolkata with 159 made it to the third spot. Indian city Mumbai scored 157, equal to that of Vietnamese capital city Hanoi, taking fourth place. 

Sources need to be reidentified, authorities notified

According to Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, chairman of the Department of Environmental Science of Stamford University: “Vehicles seem to be significantly responsible for air pollution even though brick kilns are considered responsible for 58% of Dhaka’s air pollution. 

“Over 400 brick kilns have been stopped but air pollution remains high. We have observed that on some days when there are a lesser number of vehicles on the road, the level of pollution is much lower. We should re identify the sources of pollution by conducting new research since the recent one which  holds brick kilns responsible for 58% of air pollution, was prepared seven years ago,” he added. 

On January 13, the High court also directed to fix an economic life for vehicles and pull out expired vehicles from the roads, covering vehicles during transportation of construction materials and waste, ensuring the completion of road digging and road carpeting within the timeline provided on the tender document, covering all construction materials such as sand, cement, soil and stones inside a construction yard, spraying water regularly on roads, and storing day to day dust and debris from shops and malls, in places designated by the city corporations.

Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

No one fully ensures the completion of these directions. From utility line transfers to the construction of a small building in any area within Dhaka City Corporations, everyone is violating the timelines, keeping uncovered construction materials out in the open on the roads. Shopkeepers are still putting out daily dust and debris on the road. Finally, BRTA lacks the capacity and manpower to check the fitness of vehicles.

In this situation, the high level committee provided directions to relevant organizations to perform their duties accordingly. DoE has written letters consisting of specific directions to Dhaka South City Corporation and Dhaka North City Corporation, Rajuk, the Department of Public Works, Roads and Highways, Dhaka WASA, Titas Gas Transfer and Distribution Company Limited, Dhaka Elevated Expressway Project, Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited, and the Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh to take necessary action to ensure environmentally friendly development. 

Ziaul Haque, director (air quality) of the DoE said: “A lot of initiatives have been taken by the DoE to combat air pollution. The committee headed by the secretary of MoEFCC has provided a directory for the ministries, departments, and related government and non government organizations. The DoE sent letters to those organizations describing the action that needs to be taken. If all stakeholders perform their duties seriously, air quality will surely improve.

“Experts suggested we form a central coordination board to operate development works that are environment-friendly. We have referred it to higher authorities and the High court,” he said.   

Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Kamruzzaman Majumder, also joint secretary of BAPA, said: “Only directives cannot change anything. We need implementation of the directions to get results. A massive change of the system and existing practices is needed. A high powered central board may help coordinate among the departments working in the city, but urban government is the best solution where the city corporations will get all authority.” 

“In this situation, a Clean Air Act should be passed in parliament which gives immense power to the Director General of the DoE to take action,” he added.

Calls for restructuring of transport system, ban of reconditioned vehicles 

Considering vehicles a big source of air pollution, experts suggested an overhaul of the transport system. The DoE has placed a number of recommendations following consultation with experts. 

Among them, stopping the import of reconditioned vehicles and pulling old vehicles off the roads, increasing mass transport by reducing the use of private cars, emphasizing projects like the metro rail, circular rail, underground communication, and to complete their construction as early as possible.

Moreover, it recommended a modern landfill for waste management, strengthening of DoE by increasing manpower and the forming of a central coordination board comprising of top officials from relevant departments to run development work in environment-friendly ways.     

Air pollution severely affects health and is a rising cause of death. At least 123,000 people have died in Bangladesh in 2017 due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, according to a global study titled "State of Global Air 2019," released on April 3 last year by two US-based institutes—the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).