How to air out Dhaka and reduce pollution post Covid-19
When the honking of cars hushed down in Bangladesh we observed a rather unfamiliar moment of silence. Dhaka, after a long time, heard the sounds of forgotten birds and saw the glimpse of a city that is no longer muffled by the usual roaring pollution.
As Covid-19 started spreading across Bangladesh, the entire country was put under immediate lockdown, starting from March 25. This meant pausing all but essential services. As a result, the numerous factories set across the urban and peri-urban areas of Dhaka were all put to a halt.
Considering that the emissions coming from the variety of brick kilns, construction sites and industrial chimneys are some of the major sources of air pollution, a forced shutdown of these activities undoubtedly contributed towards the observed improvement in the city’s air pollution levels.
An immediate result was a drop in the Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers. Within the first 5 days, the AQI numbers for Dhaka dropped from the usual range of 260-319 to 91. In fact, a recent article stated that Bangladesh's carbon emissions have reduced by 24% during the recent countrywide shutdown. These numbers, in addition to the visual and anecdotal evidences presented by the city dwellers, show a clear reduction of air pollution levels all across the city.
But are these specks of positive environmental changes here to stay? No, certainly not. As the lockdown is lifted the city will once again resume its daily routine, and with that, the pollution levels will also go back to its usual state.
A lockdown mandated to control the spread of Covid-19, a deadly disease, cannot solely lead to the necessary changes for solving the pervasive problem of air pollution in Dhaka.
However, the situation did present us with a brief glance at a city that is much less smoky and in some ways more breathable. This fleeting vision of an alternate reality can now stir the realizations needed for reducing the air pollution levels within the city, in a manner that is more effective and sustainable for all.
Laying the foundation for change
While the environmental costs of industries are undeniable, there are many green growth opportunities worth exploring within these sectors.
For example, while the brick kilns set across the country employ more than a million people, there are significant environmental costs associated with their activities. Traditional bricks produced from these kilns are composed using the topsoil, which contains most of the nutrients, and affects the overall fertility of the soil for plant growth and food production.
In addition to this, there is a significant amount of emissions from heating clay blocks in traditional coal-fired kilns. Due to the use of inefficient, traditional firing technology, brick production in Bangladesh is a major emitter of carbon dioxide and PM 2.5.
In order to reduce these emissions, some of the solutions suggested include investing in energy-efficient kilns. The two types of modern kilns with the most potential in Bangladesh are Hybrid Hoffman and Tunnel kilns.
While both these kilns require the use of coal, they still end up using much less coal than the traditional kilns, and when designed and operated by skilled technicians, they release considerably less CO2 and PM 2.5.
In addition, this system also reduces the usage of agricultural topsoil and can produce bricks using renewable raw materials, such as sand, river dredge, and riverbank soil. Another option that bodes well for the environment is the use of non-fired bricks.
Examples of such varieties include compressed concrete blocks and aerated autoclaved concrete blocks. At present these options are not as widely used, but with more investments in production and a greater market potential, there could be an increase in the usage of these alternatives.
The government of Bangladesh acknowledges the need to reduce environmental pollution from brick kilns and has already taken some remarkable steps to advance the cause. The Parliament passed the 'Brick Manufacturing and Brick Kiln Establishment (Control) (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which aims to make the existing law on brick manufacturing a more time-befitting one.
New bill requires an environmental clearance before setting a brick kiln, encourages the usage of alternative (non-fired) brick options and ensures a reduction of harmful gas emissions from the process.
This is definitely a good start. Acknowledging the environmental costs of an economically beneficial industry and investing in innovative measures to reduce these adversities lays the foundation for a sustainable development.
However, to see actual results from the newly developed policies, it is essential to ensure proper implementation and uptake. In doing so, we can pave the path towards lasting environmental benefits.
Building a ‘better’ normal
As we make development plans for addressing some of the impacts of Covid-19 in Bangladesh we should also acknowledge the prevalent threats from climate change. The impacts of climate change on Bangladesh is inevitable.
It is important that we integrate the solutions for both of these pressing issues and develop a holistic plan of action that can ultimately lead to a climate-resilient recovery. Therefore, investments in low-carbon solutions to reduce industrial pollution can both ensure environmental sustainability and also further Bangladesh’s green growth agenda.
To foster such development agendas there is a great need to work towards transformational changes. This will require shifts in existing institutional arrangements and the development of environmentally conscious plans and policies, mobilizing the civil society to ensure good governance and effective implementation of policy measures, and on a societal level instil environmental awareness for advocating sustainable practices.
We must understand that creating a new normal should not just be bandaging over the damages suffered by the existing system, it should entail fundamental changes that go beyond temporary relief measures and commit to ensuring greater environmental sustainability and climate resilience. Echoing the predominant sentiment for recovery, we really do need to build back better.
Shababa Haque is an Environmental Researcher working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development