Once, Rajshahi’s sweltering summers were made worse by a familiar problem on the Asian subcontinent: windows would have to be shut, not because of the wind or monsoon, but because of the smog.
Dust blown up from dry riverbeds, fields and roads, and choking smog from ranks of brick kilns on the edge of town helped to secure the place a spot in the top tier of the world’s most polluted cities.
Then suddenly Rajshahi, in Bangladesh, hit a turning point so dramatic that it earned a spot in the record books: last year, according to UN data, the town did more than any other worldwide to rid itself of air particles so harmful to human health.
“We didn’t know about this,” admits Ashraful Haque, the city’s chief engineer, who like some of his fellow residents is rather bemused by the achievement.
Rajshahi does not have a large industrial area, and it is too poor to have streets clogged with cars. Instead, Haque believes it was the campaign to clean up the brick kilns, as well as efforts to make the city greener, that have turned the tide.
Levels of larger PM10 particles went from 195 micrograms per cubic metre in 2014, to just 63.9 in 2016, a reduction of about two-thirds, and the largest in the world in absolute terms. Smaller PM2.5 particles have been nearly halved to 37 micrograms per cubic metre from 70.
Haque, who was born and educated in the city, remembers as a child having to close windows and doors to shut out a thin film of dirt that would settle across every surface in the house when a wind swept in from outside.
Nowadays it’s a different city, thanks to the campaign that began with a tree-planting drive more than 15 years ago, and now encompasses everything from transport to rubbish collection. Dust still hangs heavy in the air on occasions, but the transformation has been welcomed by local residents in a country where urban authorities more often generate frustration and resentment.
“Things have got better for my classmates with asthma,” said Fatema Tuzzohra, a 13-year-old enjoying a riverside park after school. “I love the city, it is really clean and green.”
The city began tackling transport issues in 2004, importing a fleet of battery-powered rickshaws from China, and banning large lorries from the city centre in daytime. The three-wheelers are the main form of public transport, and their batteries keep the air free of the petrol and diesel fumes that hang over other cities.
Upgrades to the brick kilns, such as changing chimneys and fuel, have reduced the amount of pollution they spew out around the city, Haque says. And he has personally designed and overseen a project to make the city centre greener while reducing the amount of dust kicked up by people and vehicles.
“We have a ‘zero soil’ programme in the city, with lots of planting and green intervention. When it works, there should be no part of the road that will be dirt. It will be all grass, flower or pavement,” says Haque.
He became convinced that the city needed more pavements after trips to study urban planning abroad. At the time the asphalt surfacing of the city roads mostly ended in a dusty verge, sometimes with open drains, dangerous and unappealing for walking along, he said.
“In 2010, after a visit to London, I started creating pavements. I couldn’t believe it, everyone has to walk at least 2km a day [in London], but here people finish lunch and look for a rickshaw. Even in the good neighbourhoods, there are no pavements.”
Apart from encouraging a healthier lifestyle, they are vital for controlling dust in the air, he says. “If you have them, no soil will fly during the summer seasons.” So far they have built about 9 miles (15km) of pavements, but soon hope to expand to 30, he said.
The road transformation will go beyond pedestrians this month, when city workers start building the city’s – and the country’s – very first cycle lane.
Take-up is likely to be slow in a city already sweltering in the summer heat, and where the only people on bicycles are those too poor to afford other transport, Haque admits. But inspired by trips abroad, he hopes to sow the first seeds of change.
“I went to the river Thames and saw people riding bikes, I got the idea from Japan and China as well. We don’t have enough land for a separate lane in many places, but where we can we will separate with a border, making a pavement and a cycle lane beside it.”
People are proud of their town, and have started looking after it more closely after the transformation, says restaurateur SM Shihab Uddin, who spent nearly a decade working in Cyprus before returning to open his own chain of eating spots for the growing middle class.
“It has changed so much,” he said. “I came back in 2009, and I was worried that I would find it hard to live here after so much time abroad. But it was already transformed.”
Saad Hammadi contributed to this report.