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High Court demands answers for Dhaka’s worsening air quality

  • Published at 12:06 am May 6th, 2019
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A dust filled street in DhakaMehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

A respiratory diseases expert says air pollution is increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases, and cancer

A High Court bench on Sunday expressed disappointment and frustration over the worsening air quality in Dhaka. 

The bench, comprised of Justice FRM Nazmul Ahsan and Justice M Kamrul Kader, issued summons to the chief executives of Dhaka's two city corporations, asking them to appear on May 15 and explain what they were doing to prevent air pollution in the capital.

Advocate Manzil Murshid filed the writ, Deputy Attorney General Abdullah Al Mahmud Bashar stood for the state, and Advocate Nurunnahar represented the two city corporations.

Authorities keep disappointing the court

Earlier on January 28, the High Court ordered the Department of Environment to conduct mobile court drives twice a week against parties responsible for air pollution in the capital. It also ordered all construction and renovation sites in Dhaka to be covered up within 15 days, to prevent spreading dust in the dry season and to spray water in dust-prone areas twice a day.

The two mayors of Dhaka, their executive officers, the environment secretary and the director general of the DoE were asked to submit a report within the next two weeks to implement the court order.


Also Read- HC summons both Dhaka city corporation chief executives over report on air pollution


Later on March 13, the same High Court bench expressed disappointment and frustration with the worsening of air quality in Dhaka as “the authorities did not take proper action to prevent the air pollution.”

“There was a directive to both city corporations to spray water twice a day so the dust does not spread, but the report filed by the city corporations failed to satisfy the court. So, the two city corporation chief executives have to explain the reasons for their failure to do so, on May 15 when they appear before the court,” said Deputy Attorney General Abdullah Al Mahmud Bashar, after the court order on Sunday.

A lifeline in the making, by throttling the city

The open construction sites of both government and private projects contribute daily to rising particle levels in the air, aggravating Dhaka’s air quality and threatening the health of the capital’s denizens.

Commuters from all over Dhaka – like Mirpur, Moghbazar, Jatrabari, Beribadh, Uttara, and Rampura - reported unbearable dust pollution on their journeys across the city. 

The stretch of Begum Rokeya Avenue from Mirpur 12 to Agargaon is covered by a near solid wall of dust. Pedestrians have to cover their faces as much as possible when they use the roads. Cars have it a little easier, and buses can close their windows, but for other open vehicles like tempos and CNG autorickshaws, any trip is a trek through a battlefield.

Dhaka is the second most polluted capital, with Bangladesh having the most polluted air in the world, according to the 2018 World Air Quality Report by Greenpeace and AirVisual, that present PM2.5 air quality data aggregated through the IQAir AirVisual platform.

“At a country level, weighted by population, Bangladesh emerges as the most polluted country on average, closely followed by Pakistan and India, with Middle Eastern countries, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, also within the top 10,” said the report.

In visiting different areas, Dhaka Tribune found the High Court’s January 27 directives have largely been ignored as construction sites still continue uncovered. Furthermore, the city corporations are also not spraying water on a regular basis, according to complaints from residents in areas where dust has been a persistent problem.

The Mass Rapid Transit project, popularly known as the metro rail project, is being developed across Dhaka. As such, roads have been dug up; construction work takes place, contributing to the overall and steadily deteriorating air pollution in the city. While the metro rail has been described as a potential lifeline for the city, revolutionizing public transport and commuting, its construction has come at a terrible cost in the form of high levels of particulate matter. The same can be said of elevated expressways or any other development activity of utility services.

Where does Bangladesh stand globally?

Bangladesh, one of the most densely-populated countries in the world, has long been struggling with air pollution, and Dhaka continuously ranks among the world’s most polluted cities.

In AirVisual’s real-time air quality ranking, Dhaka had the worst air on Sunday out of the 85 cities assessed. The air was classified “unhealthy” – a label the index elaborates to “increased likelihood of adverse effects and aggravation to the heart and lungs among the general public – particularly for sensitive groups.”

The index data shows that in April the air quality was alarmingly hazardous, improving later in the month and in the first week of May, with the advent of Cyclone Feni.

A study on global air pollution released in April says at least 123,000 people died in Bangladesh in 2017 due to indoor and outdoor air pollution. 

The study, "State of Global Air-2019,” conducted by two US-based institutes—the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)— estimated that if air pollution levels met the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, life expectancy in Bangladesh would have seen the highest expected gain of nearly 1.3 years.

Respiratory diseases no longer limited to winter

A respiratory diseases expert says air pollution is increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases, and cancer.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU)'s respiratory medicine professor, Dr Mohammed Atiqur Rahman, said respiratory diseases are no longer caused by winter’s dry season alone, but have become common throughout the year because of rising air pollution in Dhaka.

“Breathing difficulties and asthma are now quite common among people, particularly among children. The particulate matter in the air is getting into our bodies and causing other viral diseases that lead to dermatological problems,” he said.

“Years ago, the city corporation used to spray water regularly in the streets, but they do not do it regularly now. Things have gotten so bad that the High Court has to now order them to take action. Maybe if they follow the court’s orders, they might just curb air pollution.”

He also urged people to use masks and take influenza vaccines to keep themselves safe from respiratory diseases.

Is the government doing enough?

Campaigners against environment pollution have voiced deep concern over the rising problem and urged authorities to look into the matter.

They said the intensity of dust pollution rose in winter because of construction, including road digging causing various diseases, including allergic reactions, and respiratory and skin diseases. They said around 90% of Dhaka’s population is affected by the dust pollution.

According to Poribesh Bachao Andolon (Poba), around 40% of patients being treated in children’s wards at different hospitals, were admitted for respiratory diseases in winter due to serious dust pollution.

Poba Chairman, Abu Naser Khan, told Dhaka Tribune that government organizations are still ignoring the High Court directives.

“We expect the government to take necessary steps in this regard as a huge number of people in the capital are affected by severe air pollution, caused mainly by dust,” he said.

They recommended the removal of construction material and excavated soil from roadsides quickly after repair work, regular cleaning of roads and footpaths, not keeping construction material in open places or by the roadside.

Department of Environment's Director (Air Quality Management), Ziaul Haque, told Dhaka Tribune that the DoE does conduct some drives against parties causing air pollution in the capital.

“We provided a guideline to the metro rail authority for their ongoing construction. We also discussed matters with the city corporation authorities and Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) authority to minimize dust pollution,” he added.

Earlier on February 14, Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister, Md Shahab Uddin, said brick kilns around Dhaka city are responsible for 58% of its air pollution. The minister also said emissions from automobiles and dust from construction sites are major factors influencing air pollution in the capital. 

Though the minister did not go into details, he did discuss preparing a draft of the Clean Air Act and reiterated the government’s commitment to improving air quality as pledged in its election manifesto.