Smoke belches out of brick kiln chimneys at Shyamlasi, Keraniganj, on the outskirts of Dhaka on 3 January 2019.
File photo

In 2022, Bangladesh was ranked the fifth most polluted country in the world by IQAir. According to the World Bank, this high level of air pollution was the second leading contributing factor to deaths and disabilities in Bangladesh in 2019. Poor quality and contaminated air can post significant health risks, even when the period of exposure is relatively short.

Breathing contaminated air may contribute to a range of adverse health outcomes, including type 2 diabetes, lower respiratory infection, pulmonary diseases, ischemic heart diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Moreover, with long-term exposure, the toxicity of air pollutants can gradually reduce the functionality of human lungs, and may even lead to lung cancer and chronic heart diseases.

The continuous progress of technological innovations, coupled with the ongoing global urbanisation and industrialisation trends, has led to a significant increase in carbon footprints in Bangladesh and surrounding countries. This development poses a severe threat not only to the environment but also to human health and the economy.

The major sources of air pollution in Bangladesh include vehicular emissions, coal-fired power plants, brick kilns, industrial activities, road dust, and construction sites. Air pollution in Dhaka is usually highest during the winter, and relatively low during monsoon. This is because rainfall during the monsoon tends to regularly clear the air. As the rate of motorisation in Bangladesh has grown, harmful emissions from vehicles have risen disproportionately. This is mostly due to the use of poorly maintained vehicles, adulterated fuels, improper traffic and road management, and inadequate parking space.

Besides vehicles, another significant source of emission is the brick kiln industry. Due to increased development projects taken by the government of Bangladesh, the demand for construction materials has increased significantly in recent years. According to the Department of Environment (DoE) and the World Bank, there were about 8000 brick kilns operating all over Bangladesh in 2018, producing around 15 billion bricks annually. In Bangladesh, bricks are manufactured in a primitive system using traditional methods. These outdated models and technologies are imposing serious damage to the environment by emitting large amounts of pollutants.

Currently, there are several on-going construction activities in urban cities including the construction of road, housing, and flyover in Bangladesh. These construction sites are often very dusty because there are no specific guidelines or rules on the storage and transportation of construction materials. In a recent study, it was found that everyday 500 metric tons of dust settle on the ground and 2000 metric tons of dust floats in the sky in Dhaka city during winter seasons.

Although the economic boom of Bangladesh has led to the development of roads, railways and infrastructure of the country, the opportunity cost of worsening the air quality is very high. Moreover, transboundary air pollution is also a source of ambient air pollution in Bangladeshi cities. Around 40 per cent of the pollution in Bangladesh comes from the neighbouring countries like India, making it very challenging to tackle at the national level.

Particulate matter is the main identified pollutant in Dhaka’s air. It is so minute that billions of them can be fitted inside one red blood cell, causing mortality from respiratory, cardiovascular, and other types of diseases. Children between the age of 1 to 4 years old, and the elderly between the age of 60 to more than 95 years old, are the most vulnerable groups, as their mortality increases when exposed to ozone, particulate matter, and dust pollution. According to Global Burden of Disease (GBD), deaths from numerous diseases associated with air pollution in Bangladesh have risen by 9 per cent over the last 20 years as of 2019. According to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) study, it is estimated that the citizens of Dhaka city are losing more than 8 years of life expectancy on average due to air pollution.

Air pollution also affects the photosynthesis process, growth and reproduction of plants. During the months of January to March, the ground-level ozone concentration increases, and therefore, the production of crops and winter vegetables are adversely affected in Bangladesh. Urban air pollution also imposes high economic costs on society. The economic cost of air pollution is often attributed to the cost of healthcare.

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh’s average annual out-of-pocket expenditure as a percentage of current health expenditure has risen dramatically over recent years, reaching 74 per cent in 2020. Healthcare expenses have become a huge burden on the poor and marginalised people of the country. In addition to the personal health and financial costs of air pollution, the increasing burden of disease has economic impacts as poor health puts a strain on individuals’ work productivity.

Air pollution in the cities of Bangladesh is becoming worse with each passing minute. Achieving a greener environment with cleaner air must be a national priority. The rising health, economic and environmental concerns regarding air quality should be addressed with effective government policies to tackle air pollution. Over the years, the Bangladesh government has taken several measures to improve the air quality of Bangladeshi cities. However, in terms of implementation it was not always successful due to lack of effective monitoring and good governance.

Bangladesh needs a broader policy space and practical, implementable policies to achieve cleaner cities and eventually minimise the adverse impacts of air pollution. Some potential solutions that need to be explored include; making hybrid cars more affordable to promote them by lowering import duty, conducting fitness tests on vehicles regularly, imposing a carbon tax to reduce carbon footprints, and regulating construction sites to ensure proper storage, covering and transportation of construction materials.

In addition, the government needs to be stricter in enforcing some existing, such as shutting down illegally run brick kilns and banning the use of buses and trucks older than 20 years and 25 years respectively. Lastly, there needs to be a shift away from coal and a move towards renewable energy. Investment in renewable energies and green technology will lead to a reduction in air pollution, mitigate climate change issues and promote economic growth.

Ensuring strong commitment among politicians, researchers, scientists, and physicians will help to develop an effective approach towards reduction of air pollution in Bangladesh.

Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Kashfia Ashraf is a former Programme Associate (Research) at CPD and Marium Binte Islam is a Research Associate at CPD. Views expressed are those of the authors only and do not represent that of Prothom Alo or CPD.