Cities and Urbanism

Air Pollution: An Invisible Disaster Looming Over Us

Bangladesh, along with other parts of the world, has witnessed an increasing amount of environmental disasters as a result of climate change. On the other hand, due to poor planning and lack of regulations,  more new hazards are on the rise in our cities. As the country turns fifty this year, it is high time we get the freedom to live in an independent nation that is safe and healthy for all its citizens.

In the next three decades, Bangladesh is expected to have an estimated 50 cm rise in sea level, with 11% of land going underwater.  This will affect the lives of  15 million people living in coastal areas. The biodiversity balance and environment will also be disrupted. Urbanisation will speed up and give rise to further unplanned development, inequality and poverty. Therefore, it has become increasingly urgent to reduce future risks from these natural and man-made hazards. Bangladesh currently focuses more on climate change adaptation as the number of people being affected by climate induced disasters are increasing. However, Bangladesh needs to do more on climate change mitigation work that is about reducing global warming. One of the ways to do it is to pay urgent attention to the impact of air pollution that has  not only affected human lives and the economy, but also caused environmental hazards. In 2021, Bangladesh was ranked as the world’s worst polluted country worldwide, with 173,500 deaths caused by illnesses due to air pollution. As children breathe faster than adults, they inhale more pollutants, and their lives are more at risk  to air pollution.

Air pollution is connected to policies for energy, biodiversity, agriculture and energy, and is a risk for global health. It should be noted that air pollution is also closely linked to global warming. Transportation, construction and industrialisation has led to emission of gases in the atmosphere, some of which trap heat in the atmosphere. These are known as Greenhouse Gases (GHG), and they do not allow earth’s heat to escape naturally. One of the major GHG is carbon dioxide, which is a key contributor to global warming. Hence, in order to save the earth’s existing ecosystem, transitioning from low-carbon to a net zero carbon future is of utmost importance. Although the recently concluded United Nations Climate Conference of world leaders (or COP 26) this year, did not specifically indicate the impact of air pollution and its link to global warming, it did direct us towards a greener future, like planting more trees to absorb the excess carbon dioxide or reducing the use of cars that are run on fossil fuel thus contributing to GHG emissions. We are aware that the industrialised world is way behind their commitment to reduce global warming and to change their lifestyle. Even the citizens of the host country United Kingdom are campaigning to address the problem of air pollution and failed to get their voices heard at COP 26, as pointed out by a mother of a nine year old girl, Ella who was from London, died because of air pollution related respiratory illness.

Not only Dhaka, London, or Beijing, many secondary cities in Bangladesh and cities all over the world are struggling with unhealthy urban air quality.  Air pollution can be greatly reduced by reducing GHG emissions. GHG emissions will reduce by 87% if clean transport, buildings and industry was achieved in every city. One good news in that aspect is that Bangladesh is part of a global network called the C40 cities initiative, where Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) has taken some actions with regards to water scarcity, floods and extreme temperature. Here, one commendable intervention is to introduce 20 parks and playgrounds to regenerate urban public spaces in Dhaka. Simply planting more trees can absorb the carbon dioxide that fills the air in the cities. But the citizens also need to walk safely and breathe fresh air too. The question remains on how we do that?

If we look at sources of air pollution in Bangladesh, 85% of it comes from industries and brick kilns, building constructions and transportation. 17% of the yearly emission of carbon dioxide across Bangladesh is caused by brick kilns, and they contribute to 58% of total fine particulate matter in Dhaka, which are hazardous for human health. The World Bank made an attempt to introduce cleaner brick making technology to Bangladesh. However, the project had seemingly very little impact on the air quality of Bangladesh even a decade after the production, judging by the recent air pollution rate. 

Apart from this, large levels of GHG emission is also caused by transportation, which affects the air quality of the city. To help tackle this, the Bangladesh government submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with a GHG reduction target of 15% by 2030. It must be noted that the government has taken initiatives to implement several reduction strategies for air pollution since 2003. Some of them are: promoting CNG conversion of vehicles, tightening of vehicle emission standards, phasing out lead from petrol and placing a ban on older vehicles. So as citizens, we can be hopeful that necessary steps are being taken to ensure cleaner transportation in the country.

More recently, the Department of Environment (DoE) and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers’ Association (BELA) drafted the Clean Air Bill in 2019. To ensure that air pollution laws are not being violated by the public and private sectors, the bill proposes punishment such as jail time of ten years, fines or a combination of the two. But whether such acts are being regulated in practice remains to be seen.

Air pollution is such a tremendous disaster that not only reduces our lifespan, but it also threatens the health of our future generations. Across the world, there have been several significant evidence-based projects and policies that address air pollution and climate change issues, like committing to transitioning to clean energy, green construction technology and ensuring clean transportation, and above all making people walk and cycle. Instead of banning rickshaws, Bangladesh can scale up electric rickshaws and other modes of green transport, adop walking friendly cities like it is happening in many parts of the world especially after Covid-19. 

We do not want more Ella’s to die, because we want to drive our cars and build our cities with bricks and concrete. We want our children to grow up in a healthy and safe city. Cities are hubs for innovation and as citizens we need to find answers to the problems we have created. 

Written by Farhat Afzal, with Rumana Kabir and Farah Naz

Featured image by Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune


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