Over the past eight years, Bangladesh has slipped down 40 places in the global environmental performance index. It has failed to emerge from the list of the top 10 countries at risk due to shrinking forest spaces, air and water pollution, and polythene and plastic waste.
Ironically, from the constitution itself to the ruling Awami League’s election manifesto, environment has been given top priority. However, the government’s commitment to protect the forests and rivers remains restricted to paper.
According to a World Bank report published last September, 28 per cent of the people who died in Bangladesh from different causes in 2015, died due to environmental pollution-related illnesses, the highest in the world.
Experts blame this deteriorating state of environmental performance on political pressure, influential persons flouting the rules, and incompetence of the relevant government agencies. They see that it will be a major challenge for this government to overcome these challenges to protect the environment and tackle climate change.
Secretary of the environment, forest and climate change ministry Abdullah Al Mohsin Chowdhury told Prothom Alo, “It is not possible for our ministry alone to control pollution. If each component of pollution is dealt with separately, it will not be effective. That is why an integrated project is being taken up to deal with air, water and soil pollution.”
In the report published by the US-based Environmental Protection Index (EPI) last year on the environment performance by the government of 180 countries, Bangladesh ranked at 179, having slipped down by 40 places from the year 2010 to 2018.
Brick kilns build air pollution
Over the past two years Dhaka has been among the top five most polluted cities of the world. It has at times topped the list too.
According to the department of environment and the World Bank, brick kilns contribute of 56 per cent of the air pollution in the country.
The government has enacted a law in 2018 to make these kilns environment friendly, but a recent report indicates that of the 7,772 brick kilns in the country, 2,123 have not converted to the required modern and environment-friendly technology.
According to the law, brick fields cannot be set up on crop land, soil from crop land cannot be used for making bricks. Brick kilns cannot be set up near human settlements, markets and places of economic activity.
According to the department of environment, 98 per cent of the brick kilns in the country are unlawful.
The environment department recently began a drive against these unlawful brick kilns, but the local administration has failed to take any palpable action in this regard.
It has been learnt that the upazila nirbahi officers and district administration collect money at a local level for a special ‘fund’ for unofficial expenses and a large chunk of the fund comes from the owners of the brick fields.
In June 2018 Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) called for accountability and transparency regarding these funds and criticism arose from among the ruling party MPs too.
But the local administration uses the funds for various political and state programmes, and so no action was taken. And no action is taken either against the unlawful brick kilns.
Pollution from the transport sector
In 2001 the three-stroke engine baby taxies were banned due to the pollution these vehicles caused.
These were replaced by CNG-run auto-rickshaws. Bus and cars are also being run on CNG. This improved the quality of the capital city’s air significantly.
According to the department of environment, the transport sector contributes to 16 per cent of Dhaka’s air pollution.
According to the department of environment and the World Bank, old and unfit vehicles, particular buses, cause the most pollution.
The Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) and the environment department are supposed to take action against such vehicles.
However, these two agencies are helpless in the face of leaders of the ruling party who have a strong hold over the transport sector.
Industries pollute rivers and forests
The national environment committee, the government’s highest forum for environmental affairs, held a meeting in 2009 after 12 years.
Alongside initiatives to prevent river pollution, validity was given on condition to 250 industries which had sprung up around the Bhawal national park.
The committee next held a meeting in August 2017 where permission was given to 320 industrial units which had unlawfully been set up in the environmentally threatened areas around the Sundarbans. The decision was later suspended by a court order.
River pollution is another matter of concern. The water of the four rivers around the capital city have long become unfit for human consumption and also for aquatic life.
Now, the rivers Meghna, Dhaleswari and Karnaphuli have also been affected.
Certain former and incumbent MPs have even been fined for their industries polluting the rivers.
The national river protection commission recently brought charges against several influential MPs for illegal occupation and pollution of rivers.
The Supreme Court this month ruled that river encroachers will not qualify to contest in any election.
Chairman of the national river protection commission Mujibur Rahman Howladar told Prothom Alo that a list is being drawn up and action will be taken against the offenders, no matter how powerful they may be.
Department of environment fails to perform
The department of environment issues and renews clearance certificates for various industries.
But they reportedly fail to monitor whether these industries adhere to the environment-related rules. They have also been accused to corruption and incompetence.
According to the department, 2,165 factories in the country need to have waste treatment plants, but 500 of these do not have been facilities. And 308 factories which produce serious pollution have been given clearance.
In 2002, the production and use of polythene bags in the country was banned. Yet even today the markets are replete with polythene bags.
The Lalbagh and Chawk Bazar in the city, Tongi, Gazipur and Chittagong have a large number of polythene bag plants and wholesalers.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 global report, Bangladesh ranked at 10 among the plastic polluting countries.
The ministry of environment, forests and climate change is also responsible for protecting the country’s forests.
The forest department has been entrusted with this duty.
Why the department claims that the forest land has increased in the country, international agencies report otherwise.
The forest department claims 17 per cent of the country’s area is forest land, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation puts this at 13 per cent.
The international agency, Global Forest Watch, and World Resources Institute, in a report last year, said that over the past seven years 332,000 acres of forest land in Bangladesh was depleted.
Former chief conservator of forests Yunus Ali told Prothom Alo, political intervention was the main obstacle to protecting the country’s forests. Forest areas were also grabbed for the government’s development projects.
The environment and forest ministry last year send a report to the prime minister’s office, stating that since independence till date, 168,000 acres of forest area had been allocated to government and private bodies.
Last year alone, various departments of the government as well as the private sector asked for allocation of 16,000 acres of forest areas.
Chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) Syeda Rizwana Hasan told Prothom Alo, various quarters of the government are often heard to say that certain people are more concerned about tigers and the Sundarbans than humans. Or they say that development comes first, then the environment.
She said such statements indicate the government is steadily moving away from its commitment to the environment and to protecting the forests.