Air pollution is a not a problem of any particular country, it is rather a global issue, said Alice G Wells, US acting assistant secretary at the Bureau of South and Central Asia and also an air quality expert.
“We need to address this as the international community. It is not a Bangladesh problem, it is not a Dhaka problem, it is a global problem and a cross border issue…I think environmental collaboration is needed,” she said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Star during her recent three-day visit in Dhaka.
According to the Department of Environment (DoE), the average Air Quality Index (AQI) over 24 hours on November 5 stood at 264 in Dhaka, at 180 in Savar, and at 268 in Narayanganj.
According to the AQI, a score between 0-50 is good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 is cautionary, 151-200 is unhealthy, 201-300 is very unhealthy, and 300-500 is extremely unhealthy.
Dhaka’s air remained unsuitable for breathing for more than half of last year. The air quality remained “very unhealthy” and “extremely unhealthy” for 197 days, according to AQI data, monitored by the DoE under its Clean Air and Sustainable Environment project.
The duration of the presence of “unhealthy” air is increasing every day, the data showed.
Alice gave the example of how fuel is being burned in both India and Pakistan. She said intervention in one side will not bring any result and that a cross-border effort was needed to regulate fuel burning.
She further stressed that action needed to be taken right now or else the future of the next generation seems grim.
“I think building the capacity of the government and the society to respond to air pollution is important,” she added.
Alice said gathering scientific evidence of air pollution was necessary, as it will guide the decision-making process and will help prioritise the area of focus.
She said the USA has a great deal of expertise on containing air pollution and from 1970 till last year, it managed to reduce air pollution by 70 percent.
The US is leading in green technology and it’s government is happy to provide Bangladesh with technical assistance, hold discussions on green and appropriate technology and share experiences on the strategy of mitigating air pollution, Alice said.
The US diplomat further said that people sometimes make false assumptions that good quality air comes at the cost of economic growth but that is not the case.
“We are going to be able to grow our economies while still upholding the health of our citizens.”
She said there is a discussion on the relationship between economic growth and environmental health.
The diplomat said the US has shown how one country can reduce air pollution while still increasing GDP.
“We think it is the perfect time to participate in that debate. We think there needs to be a scientific discussion. I think everybody knows about the causes of air pollution…But we need scientific data that lets the government know where exactly the pollution is coming from. Only then we can have the most effective intervention.”
Referring to the World Bank report that around $6.5 billion is lost every year in Bangladesh due to air pollution, Alice said the cooperation between development and environmental issues was needed to bring down the cost of pollution.
Regarding indoor air pollution, she said women and children are disproportionally suffering the most.
“A lot needs to be done through regulations. The government is going to set the tone through regulations,” she said, adding that, “We would urge Bangladesh to swiftly pass the draft of the Clean Air Act.”
The US diplomat said the intervention process is interrelated. It stretches from scientific research to government regulation and more.
“It is an approach that needs to be taken by the whole society. Your government cannot solve the pollution issue [alone] and neither can an NGO. Everybody has to work together.”
“It is time to act now,” she said.
Regarding US cooperation to contain air pollution, she said, “We are increasing our engagement. We are engaging with the government, scientists, journalists and other actors. We would bring our experts here and are ready to support.”
Pollution is already known to raise the risk of premature birth, low birth weight and life-threatening health complications for pregnant women, like preeclampsia.
Studies show that Dhaka’s air is contaminated not only with heavy metals like lead, chromium, cadmium, nickel, arsenic, manganese and copper, but also with other poisonous particles.
In 2017, indoor and outdoor air pollution led to deaths of 1.23 lakh people in Bangladesh, according to the State of Global Air 2019 report published recently by US-based organisation Health Effects Institute and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
It said air pollution was globally the fifth highest mortality risk factor.