• Friday, Jun 05, 2020
  • Last Update : 08:35 pm

The environmental cost of urbanization

  • Published at 11:26 am February 25th, 2020
bproperty-issue 19
Photo: Courtesy

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has lost around 75% of its wetlands in the last 40 years or so, due to encroachment for urbanization purposes

The most defining trait of humans is perhaps the ability to think, formulate and come up with solutions that will make life easier by bending nature to their will. 

While Homo sapiens is not the only species to have the ability to come up with ideas or create tools to achieve their desired objectives, no one else has the capacity to do so on the same scale as us. We humans have overcome almost every obstacle nature has put in front of us so far – we created fire to overcome the cold, made hunting and cooking tools to overcome hunger, and we built communities to overcome solitude. 

However, in this march of progress and continuous struggle to overcome the natural environment, we have forgotten how to take care of the world. As a result, we stand today at the precipice of a major challenge: how to continue this progress without causing further damage to our environment.

As a nation that is on the rise, overcoming this hurdle is perhaps even more daunting, since we face a great risk from environmental damage and we have not always had the best record when it comes to clean and resilient growth. In fact, Bangladesh has one of the highest pollution rates, and Dhaka is ranked the second worst in terms of air quality. According to a 2018 World Bank report, the capital of Bangladesh lost around 75% of its wetlands in the last 40 years or so, due to encroachment for urbanization purposes. This has put the entire city and its neighbouring areas at great risk of flood, and high-rise apartments in those areas are at risk of earthquake damage. But curtailing the pace of that growth was not really an option before as slowing down could have meant stalling the development of the country. And even though Bangladesh has made significant progress in sustainable development, there is still quite a lot of room to improve and, of course, to implement.

At any point in time in Dhaka or Chittagong, over the last decade or so, there have been at least 50 or so construction projects running simultaneously. During every part of the construction process – clearing of land, demolition of existing structures, excavation of land, movement of machinery and equipment, materials used – particulates are emitted; most of them are PM10 (10 microns) or PM2.5 (2.5 microns) types, which can be quite devastating for humans. 

The real estate business in Bangladesh – Dhaka in particular – has been booming since the late 2000s. The rush for apartments has resulted in the creation of many high-rise properties, and there is still no sign of the rush slowing down as, after Bashundhara R/A, Mirpur and Uttara, the city now focuses eastward. But aside from the continuous construction of small to large residential buildings and projects, the numerous ongoing infrastructural development projects are greatly contributing to the environmental deterioration of the city.

At least 18% of the pollutants are emitted from road and soil dust, a great deal of which can be attributed to, in some way or another, infrastructural development. For residents of the capital city, the metro rail project has been the bane of their existence over the past few years. Although the project was inaugurated in June 2016, the construction properly began in 2017. Since then, the MRT-6 project, which is to run from Uttara to Motijheel via Mirpur and Farmgate, has become one of the primary sources of air pollution in the city, especially in the areas where the tracks are being constructed. There are also plans to build even more metro rails throughout the city, albeit underground. How much impact they will have on the air quality of the city still remains to be seen. 

However, these are not the only ongoing projects that are contributing to the worsening of air quality. The elevated expressway, which has seen only 22% of its construction complete in the last eight years, as well as the construction of BRT Lines, outer, inner and middle rings, numerous flyovers – all of them continue to contaminate the air we breathe, and each of these projects is necessary for the development of the city. 

A solution to this conundrum has been necessary for decades, but the inability to come up with a solution is not for the lack of trying. Bangladesh is working around to clock to introduce more green and sustainable construction techniques as well as using eco-friendly materials. The government has already begun using green bricks in their projects and plans to use such bricks in 100% of their projects. Another step the government is trying to take is to time the construction of these projects. While there is a common notion that all construction projects take place or start during the rainy season to cause more hassle for the people, that can, in fact, be the right time to begin and hopefully end the necessary construction. 

Historical data, as per the Air Quality Index (AQI), shows that the months of November, December, January and February tend to have the worst air, and the AQI score is way over 300 which is considered “Hazardous.” This is also the driest period of the year. On the other hand, air quality gets better in the middle of the year, from June to August, thanks to rain preventing excess floating particles. So, even if completing the project is not possible during this time, much of the environmental impact that stems from the early parts of construction can be reduced. But to the chagrin of the people, this time frame is rarely followed and citizens end up suffering throughout the year.

So, while a majority of today’s focus is put on brick kilns – and deservingly so – when it comes to polluting the air, the environmental impact from development and construction of roads and infrastructure needs to be brought in the limelight as well. We have reached an alarming stage today, not just locally but globally. But while others are making leaps in green development, we are not even taking quick steps. Sacrificing nature for progress is not an option for us, and we need to ensure that the environmental cost of urbanization does not outweigh its benefits and value – for us or our future generations.

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