Dhaka’s deadly dust problem
Over the years, the air quality in Bangladesh and particularly in cities like Dhaka has undoubtedly been getting worse. And because of the incredible rate at which it has been getting worse, the fact that it has been getting worse is quite clear even to the naked eye and requires no expert or others to point it out. But, what is perhaps not so clear is how bad the situation truly is and how grave the consequences of this rapid increase really are.
Back in 2011, when the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) and the Department of Environment in Bangladesh (DOE) undertook a three-year project to improve local expertise in air quality monitoring and planning for example, some of the revelations that came out were altogether shocking. One of them was that during winter, Dhaka was probably the most polluted city in the world. Just imagine the number of cities that are out there in the world. Now imagine just how bad the situation in Dhaka has to be for it to be number one on that list!
Another finding of that project was that the concentration of dust particles on the balcony of the Royal Norwegian Embassy, which some could argue would be much lower than the city’s average, exceeded three times the legal limit for air pollution in the United States and Bangladesh, and nearly five times the limit in the EU and Norway, according to the embassy website. Meanwhile, according to the DOE’s old data, the density of airborne particulate matter reaches 463 micrograms per cubic metre in the city during December to March — highest in the world — followed by Mexico City and Mumbai with 383 and 360 mcm respectively. And by the looks of things, things have only gotten worse over the past few years.
A major reason for that has been the meteoric increase in construction works across the city by both the government and private development firms. And Dhaka, of course, being an underdeveloped city, requires rapid development in its infrastructure. There is no way of logically arguing against that. But what one can easily argue is the lack of effort on part of the authorities to mitigate and, in fact, even reduce in any way the fallout effects of such development and construction works.
As reported by The Daily Star recently, city and project officials, when approached, claimed to have sprayed water to stop dust from spreading regularly. Yet, according to the same report, what the evidence shows is quite the contrary. The Dhaka South City Corporation’s Chief Executive, when contacted said that they sprayed water twice a day at their project sites, requesting others to do the same.
His counterpart at the Dhaka North City Corporation, however, said that they just had two lorries to spray water with and that although another would be added soon, it is “not enough to fight dust”. So is it a matter of lacking resources? Is it because the cost of battling dust is too much and cannot be afforded?
Not at all. Because according to the World Health Organisation, over 37,000 Bangladeshis die annually from diseases related to air pollution. That the number of people who suffer from various forms of diseases caused by dust and air pollution is much higher is a given. What that means is that the health cost brought about by the high level of air pollution alone is so great, that it is almost impossible to estimate.
So if we can afford that, why cannot we afford something much lower to minimise dust pollution? The answer is very simple. Either the authorities do not care about the dangers to human health posed by dust and air pollution, or they are too incompetent to do anything about that, both of which, are atrocious to say the least.
And because of such a situation, what is needed first and foremost is a change in attitude on part of the authorities which can only be brought about by the people themselves. While we can argue days on end that the authorities should do something about the deadly dust problem in Dhaka city, the truth of the matter is, they just don’t care enough to do so. Thus, the people themselves must put enough pressure on the authorities for there to be any significant change in the situation. Otherwise, people will continue to suffer and die for reasons that do not have to exist at all, if we would just care enough for human life.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.