Mustafizur Rahman Khan, a lifelong resident of Ghoramara in Rajshahi city, remembers how a decade or two ago, dust storms during the day would darken the streets as if it was nighttime. Dust would also creep into homes on a regular basis. “We would beat the dust off the sheets at night and go to sleep. By morning, the bed would be covered in dust again.”
Dust storms occur much less frequently than before, says Khan. He attributes this to the afforestation on the banks of the river and in and around the city. These changes became noticeable starting around 15 years ago, he adds.
Rajshahi previously experienced severe dust pollution, especially in the drier months of the year. Dust storms would frequently arise from exposed chars and dusty river banks of the Padma in the summer, restricting residents to their homes behind shuttered doors and windows.
Today, Rajshahi not only offers cleaner air and a largely dust-free environment for its residents but has also received worldwide recognition for achieving the largest reduction in levels of harmful PM10 between 2014 and 2016. It sets an inspiring precedent for other major cities, particularly Dhaka, in successfully tackling air pollution.
Rajshahi: A success story
In 2016, a report in the Guardian lauded the success story of Rajshahi in tackling urban air pollution. According to WHO data, Rajshahi showed a 67.2 percent decrease in concentration of PM10 particles, from 195 micrograms per cubic metre of air volume (µg/m3) in 2014 to 64 µg/m3 in 2016. This was the largest percentage reduction in PM10 concentration worldwide. PM2.5 concentration also nearly halved from 70 µg/m3 to 37 µg/m3.
Particulate matter (PM), composed of various substances such as black carbon and mineral dust, is the pollutant that affects human health the most. PM10 (particulate matter of 10 microns or less in diameter) and finer PM2.5 (even more harmful) can penetrate and embed deep in the lungs. Poor urban air quality has numerous health impacts, not limited, to risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Research by WHO found a “close, quantitative relationship between exposure to high concentrations of small particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) and increased mortality or morbidity, both daily and over time”. Even at very low concentrations, PM has also been found to have negative health impacts. Thus, WHO air quality guidelines (2005), aiming for the lowest possible levels, recommend an annual mean concentration of 20 µg/m3 of PM10 and 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5 only.
Rajshahi, in the north west of the country, does not admittedly have the large industrial areas and high numbers of vehicles typical in cities like Dhaka. However, its impressive reduction of harmful PM10 is largely the result of successful targeting of air pollution sources and green initiatives undertaken by the city authorities—a process which began more than 15 years ago.
One of the first pollution sources to be targeted was the transport sector—in 2004, the city introduced battery-powered rickshaws and banned large trucks in the city centre during daytime. These measures reduced petrol and diesel fumes, which emanate from the more polluting vehicles, used earlier, and also cut carbon emissions.
However, according to Ashraful Haque, Chief Engineer of Rajshahi City Corporation, it was cleaning up the brick kiln industry and green initiatives which proved instrumental in tackling air pollution. The former involved modernising brick kilns, such as by raising the height of the chimneys, to reduce the amount of black smoke and pollutants expelled.
Perhaps the most significant of the City Corporation's green initiatives was a 'zero soil' programme, designed by Haque personally, which ensured that all available soil was covered. This was accomplished either by constructing pavements or planting trees. More pavements not only mean more space for pedestrians to walk but less opportunity for dust to be kicked up into the air by people and vehicles. As of now, 20 km of pavements have been created, according to Haque. Tree planting drives continue, with 19,000 neem trees to be planted across the city already this year. “Seedlings have already been distributed to students of V, VIII, and X in schools across the city for them to plant in their neighbourhoods,” says Haque.
Even more path-breaking in Rajshahi is the construction of its very first cycle lane, also a first in the country. Where there is no space for a separate lane, a border will ensure a separate lane for cyclists, who are using an eco-friendly and cheap mode of transportation. Construction of a cycle lane, three and a half km long, is currently underway, according to Haque.
Can this model be replicated in Dhaka and other major cities?
While Dhaka has the drawback of much larger scale pollution sources, it also has the benefit of multi-million dollar funding from the World Bank. In comparison, the Rajshahi initiatives were funded by city corporation and government funding alone.
Since 2009, the Department of Environment (DoE) has undertaken a USD 71.25 million Clean Air and Sustainable Environment project (CASE), in collaboration with the World Bank. CASE has installed 11 Continuous Air Quality Monitoring Stations countrywide to monitor major air pollutants and generate real-time air quality data.
CASE addresses urban air pollution in Dhaka with initiatives such as those undertaken in Rajshahi. For example, it introduced cleaner and energy efficient vertical shaft brick kilns which emit 60 percent-70 percent less PM than traditional kilns and constructed around 35 km of pavements to improve safe mobility in Mohammadpur and Tejgaon areas of the capital. However, progress in Dhaka is slow.
Farazi Shahabuddin Ahmed, Chief Engineer of the Dhaka South City Corporation, points the finger at numerous private construction companies for the increase in dust pollution. “Unless RAJUK can make building permits conditional on maintaining safe practices and limits for the amount of dust generated by construction, there is little we can do to tackle air pollution.” Between November and February, the dust from construction and brick production does not settle.
Ahmed's department attempts to reduce PM in the air by sprinkling water on the streets during particularly dry times and repairing broken roads in order to reduce dust being kicked up by vehicles. On being asked whether constructing pavements is another option, an initiative which worked successfully in Rajshahi, he says ruefully, “Where is the space?”
Tackling air pollution in Dhaka city requires a concerted cross-sector effort, involving the two City Corporations and DoE among others, as happened in Rajshahi city. Rajshahi city is a shining example of how long-term initiatives successfully planned and implemented can have measurable and noticeable positive impact in a short time. Dhaka can look to the model of Rajshahi for improving its air quality in the years to come.