Development or environment: The Sophie’s choice for Bangladesh

People breathe in polluted Dhaka air.UNB file photo

In 21st-century capitalism, very few commodities are still free of cost. Centuries ago, our ancestors could travel from one land to another without restrictions, drink clean and pristine water from rivers and springs and breathe in pollution-free air.

Now, people have to run through many hoops and pay a hefty price to cross their national borders. Clean water has already become a scarce commodity. Only air is still free for all. But even there, there’s a catch.

At the cusp of the industrial revolution, when the first factories started operating in Europe, pollutants started poisoning our air.

To be fair to the early industrialists, they didn’t know any better. The world was still unaware of how their actions were hurting the environment, and the far reaching effects of these actions. Modern capitalists, however, can’t use that as an excuse anymore.

People struggle to deal with the dust and pollution. Picture taken in Shewrapara of Dhaka city.
Prothom Alo

More than a couple of centuries have passed since then and scientists now have shown the world the dire effects of air pollution and why we need to stop emitting greenhouse gas immediately.

The signs of a global calamity are all around us, the world is getting hotter every year, the ice in the Arctic is melting and the sea level is rising. However, greed prevails over common sense.

The West has already reaped the benefits of industrialisation and many so-called first world countries are focusing on renewable energy.

This shift in focus, coupled with their low population density, has allowed them to reduce the carbon emissions, that is, pollutants in the air.

But for a developing country like Bangladesh, the problem is more complex. Bangladesh joined the industrial revolution much later and is yet to reach its full potential. Bangladesh still doesn’t possess the economic affluence to reduce dependency on non-renewable energy nor the technical capability to switch to renewable energy.

For the sake of economic growth, Bangladesh needs to grow more industries. And more industries would inevitably lead to more air pollution, which is not good news for country whose citizens are already living in a virtual ‘gas chamber’.

According to the Air Quality Index (AQI) rankings in 2021, Bangladesh has the worst air quality in the world with a score of 161.

Dhaka, which is currently the third most polluted city in the world in terms of air pollution, has an AQI score of 149 on 22 September 2022.

The chief pollutant in Dhaka is PM2.5, which refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one-half microns or less in width. They are not visible to the naked eye. The biggest PM2.5 particles have one-third the width of a hair and the thousands of the smallest ones could fit in the full stop at the end of this sentence.

People trying hard to avoid inhaling dust directly while walking at Postogola Bridge in Dhaka. The capital has long been grappling with air pollution
UNB file photo

The PM2.5 concentration in Dhaka is 11 times higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline. To improve the air quality in the capital, first and foremost, we have to reduce the amount of PM2.5 in the air. But for the last decade or so, Dhaka has been going in the exact opposite direction.

Dhaka, which is historically known as the city of mosques, could be called the city of megaprojects right now. Multiple large-scale megaprojects are happening at the same time in various corners of the city, the two biggest one being the Metrorail project and the Dhaka Elevated Expressway.

Under-construction Dhaka elevated expressway in the airport area
File photo

These projects are likely to reduce traffic, save work hours, reduce hassle and in time lessen carbon emissions in the city. But for now, they are causing a lot of grief to the people and the environment.

The construction work of these massive structures has been going on for years and it’s going to take a few more years to complete the projects. Cement and other similar fine products used in these megaprojects have been polluting the air from the start and as the construction continues, it will continue to do so.

But, the reality is that Dhaka, where over 30 thousand people live per square kilometre, needs these projects to survive as a city. Had Bangladesh joined the industrial revolution earlier, maybe an intercity Metrorail and elevated expressway would already be in place, like it is in many cities of our neighbouring country India.

A worker laying the railway tracks of the Metrorail
Tanvir Ahmmed

Bangladesh now has no choice but to maintain a perilous balancing act of sustaining development while not harming the environment, which, so far, it hasn’t managed to do successfully.

But there are some glimmers of hope. Bangladesh government and several non-government organisations are working to increase the use of solar plants, biogas and other sustainable sources of energy. Bangladesh is also now the country with the highest number of ‘Green Factories’ in the world in the readymade garments sector with 144 factories as of 2021, with quite a few factories set to enter the list.

As Bangladesh continues its march in industrialisation in the coming years, the country will come face to face with a choice, continuing as they were, paying little heed to its effects on the environment, or adapting their industries with the environment in mind, sacrificing the rate of economic growth.

It will be Bangladesh’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and one can only hope the country makes the right decision.