Traps and gaps of urban greening for Dhaka

Passersby choking on dust from a building which being demolished. This photo taken from Mohammadpur area, Dhaka, on 18 January 2020.Dipu Malakar

The lack of proper planning of green spaces has turned Dhaka into a gloomy and grey city. If we get a satellite image of Dhaka, we can hardly find green areas. The drastic reduction of green spaces in Dhaka city is the result of the lack of proper policy, low political motivation, and poor management. When the city planners extended Dhaka in a vertical and horizontal way, unfortunately, they did not consider keeping green areas. The people of the city and the city planners have already filled up most of the wetland and lakes, destroyed trees, and surrounding forests. The decreasing rate of wetland from 1988 to 2016 was 71.84 per cent. As a result, the microclimate of the city has experienced warming.

Air pollution is very high in Dhaka. According to Yale and Columbia universities' Environmental Performance Index, Bangladesh was ranked 179th in 2018 and just after two years the country becomes 162 out of 180 countries in 2018 the world. Dhaka city has a scarcity of greenery to soothe eyes and soul. Due to heavy metal contamination and other pollutant particles, air quality is worst in the bottom layers of air. This is affecting the respiratory system of the city dwellers, especially the children, women, and old people. Recently it was reported that a Bangladeshi asthmatic man was given the right to stay in France because his life would be endangered by the air quality in Bangladesh. Air pollution is related to five of the top ten causes of death in Bangladesh – lung cancer (13%), lower respiratory infections (7%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (7%), ischemic heart disease (6%), and stroke (5%). According to World Health Organization 2016 estimates, air pollution kills 195,000 Bangladeshis each year.

Dhaka needs greenery. This is Ramna Park, one of the few stretches of green in the heart of Dhaka city
File photo

Dhaka is one of the densest and most overpopulated cities in the world with the burden of intense air pollution and traffic jams. Acute air pollution is blackening the air, and reduced visibility is created by the smog in the day time. Chocking and irritated eyes is common. According to the WHO report 2001, the lead concentration found in the blood of children in Dhaka was up to four times higher acceptable levels. To gather some perspectives from the ground, this writer conducted interviews from three different age groups - young, middle-aged, and old.

Bilkis Banu is a 63-year-old woman who has been living in Dhaka for more than 20 years. While traveling by car and waiting in traffic jams, the pollution had such a severe effect on her that she couldn't breathe for a while. Due to the lack of oxygen and access to fresh air to her brain, she began to vomit. Bilkis took a long time to recover from the pollution shock, and health experts say that such pollution shock has long-term side effects on the respiratory and nervous system.

Nuva Sharmin came from a small green village to Dhaka to study in college. She finds it very difficult to access green areas and fresh air to breathe. Sometimes she feels the air is so heavy and smelly that it suffocates her, making her tired. She feels unable to concentrate while studying. With no access to a park or similar green area, Nuva often escapes to the rooftop of her building for fresh air, but even there her view is trapped by the concrete structures all around. It is a great shock for the newcomers to adapt to such a suffocating environment. Not only the roads and highways, but the residential areas too have no green space. In the residential areas when people open the window, they see just another window or other concrete buildings. The story of Bilkis and Nuva is a common story of thousands of men, women, and children. People fear travel because of the effects of pollution, and many carry a polybag because they may feel sick without warning.

Ruhul Qudus, 34, loves trees and green plants. He is from the small town Bheramara of Kushtia district. He and his friends took the initiative to plant 100 trees in their own town, alongside the roads. He did not take help from the government for tree plantation in the town because of long-winded bureaucracy. Once the city mayor took the initiative to clean the town, and unfortunately the workers cut down all the 100 trees when they were cleaning the town.

The global campaign of the Cities4Forests initiative, which encourages people to reconnect with nature and address deforestation, identifies three categories of forests that are vital to our ecosystem: inner forests for example city trees and urban parks, nearby forests e.g. green corridors and watersheds, and faraway forests such as tropical and boreal forests. Amongst the many benefits of inner forests is their role in regulating high temperatures, supporting the water cycle, stormwater management, replenish water tables, reduce local flooding, and prevent soil erosion. An ideal city needs 25 percent greenery and open spaces, but there is only five percent open ground and greenery in the old part of Dhaka and 12 percent in the new region. Urban forests are an important part of the strategy not only to combat climate change but also to enhance the health and wellbeing of people living within the city.

Inner forests are also deeply linked to improving mental health through the creation of spaces where communities can come together for recreation, or where individuals may find respite from daily work routines. In Dhaka however, exercise and sports for the children are also out of the question because of the lack of parks and open spaces. Heavy metal and air pollution affect the quality of sleep for thousands of people and especially asthma patients. People often rely on oxygen masks or some other spray to balance the room environment for sleeping at night.

Government action around urban greening has been haphazard and piecemeal. In 2017 Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Mayor Annisul Huq and Roads and Highways Department jointly planted 500 Chinese and Taiwanese bonsai Ficus (Bot) which cost around half a million euro (Tk 55 million) as part of 'beautification'. This move was criticised by naturalists because bonsai is a very expensive and sophisticated plant, and it is not the right plant for roadside beautification. On other occasions the government has taken the initiative to plant trees on the island in the middle of roads without any soil preparation. As a result, young plants struggle to find water and nutrients to grow. Plant leaves also struggle to breathe from dust and oil and severe air pollution that has negative effects on plant growth. Here organic waste and residues can be used as organic compost manure to nutrient the soil for the green plants in the city area and this could be integrated into a wider strategy on greening. This will also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A mature big leafy tree can absorb up to 150 kg of CO2 per year. Trees can play an important role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, especially in an extremely polluted city like Dhaka. Trees can also help to improve the air quality making the city life healthier to live in. Urban trees play an important role to increase the biodiversity and cooling the air between 2 to 4 degrees. Urban greening needs proper long-term sustainable city planning from the government, policymakers, stakeholders, and concerned authorities. A city planning with enough green spaces is very important for the citizens to live a healthy and peaceful life where they can breathe freely.

Rasha Binte Mohiuddin has completed her Master’s in Environmental Protection and Agricultural Food Production at the University of Hohenheim, Germany. She can be contacted at [email protected]