POST TIME: 20 June, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Bangladesh and the need to beat air pollution
Bangladesh has not been idle in taking on these challenges. Its government is at the forefront of several initiatives to improve the country’s air quality
Mia Seppo

Bangladesh and the need to beat air pollution

The theme for this year’s World Environment Day – ‘Beat Air Pollution’ – is very appropriate for Bangladesh, with its capital, Dhaka, consistently ranked amongst the world’s worst major cities in terms of air quality.

Air pollution is the most important environmental health risk of our time. It is one of the biggest threats to the environment, and it affects everyone, individually and as part of a community. It affects a country’s development outcomes. And it is a major contributor to global warming and climate change.

Around 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population – some four billion people – are exposed to high levels of air pollution that poses a significant health risk, according to a new UN report, ‘Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions.’ Worldwide, approximately seven million people die prematurely each year from air pollution-related diseases, with about four million of these occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.

Bangladesh can and must do more, and every action that it does take to address air pollution take will have an important effect on the country’s development and ensure that people can exercise their rights to a healthy environment.

The data for Bangladesh is, sadly, in line with these findings. According to the 2019 State of Global Air study, at least 123,000 people died in Bangladesh in 2017 due to indoor and outdoor air pollution. A recent study reported that ambient air pollution shortens an average Bangladeshi's life by 1.87 years. Various air quality real-time measurements show that the city’s air quality is “extremely unhealthy” and, over the years, it has declined at an alarming rate, particularly during winter.

In terms of development, the outlook is concerning. A recent World Bank report noted that fine particulate matter air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, is by far the most significant environmental and health risk in the country, causing close to 21 per cent of all deaths in Bangladesh – or losses of about US$6.5 billion, equivalent to 3.4 per cent of its 2015 gross domestic product, annually.

The factors behind these figures are no surprise. They are linked to Bangladesh’s rapid growth in infrastructure and industrial developmental. They include the obsolete brick kilns and vehicles run on fossil fuel with a higher level of sulfur, which have been identified as the major sources of air pollution in the country.

Unregulated construction is adding more toxins and dust to the environment, and the situation is made worse by the increase in construction work on mega-projects to improve transport in Dhaka and elsewhere.  

Bangladesh has not been idle in taking on these challenges. Its Government is at the forefront of several initiatives to improve the country’s air quality. These include phasing-out of two-stroke three-wheel vehicles from major cities and converting them to compressed natural gas (CNG); setting up CNG refueling stations; introducing low Sulphur content fuel; phasing-out leaded gasoline and the import of unleaded gasoline; the expansion of railway and waterway networks; and, the relocation of some industries to export processing zones located outside urban areas.

The country took the initiative to draft a Clean Air Act and promote electric the use of electric vehicles in Dhaka, and the Bangladesh National Action Plan for Reducing Short Lived Climate Pollutants has identified 16 key abatement measures and other actions to be undertaken.

Looking back, the UN-supported initiatives on promoting ‘green bricks’ was recognized at the historic Rio+20 Conference in June 2012 as an example of what can be done.

In the meantime, around half of the brick kilns in the country have, commendably, switched to environment friendly versions. Looking forward, promising steps include a bill setting out prison sentences and fines for those who violate anti-pollution laws and a proposal for a national air quality management plan, as well as the establishment, with partners, of air quality monitoring stations around Bangladesh.

However, with all the expertise, experience and capacity that Bangladesh has at its disposal, its present approach to environmental management should be able to respond better to current trends of environmental degradation. The country should also promote market-based tools (e.g. a polluter pay principle, a green tax, congestion charges, etc.) for mitigating air pollution. Bangladesh should also amend obsolete policies and regulations relating to existing environment and air pollution legislation.

The United Nations recommends that for air quality policies and programmes to be effective, they need to be integrated across different areas of work of a country and cities, whether through transport planning, waste management and climate change mitigation. In particular, there must be monitoring and enforcement, along with compliance.

In his most recent report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment recommended seven key steps that States must take: monitor air quality and impacts on human health; assess sources of air pollution; make information publicly available, including public health advisories; establish air quality legislation, regulations, standards and policies; develop air quality action plans at the local, national and, if necessary, regional levels; implement the air quality action plan and enforce the standards; and evaluate progress and, if necessary, strengthen plans to ensure that the standards are met.

A recent UN report, ‘Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based solutions,’ flagged 25 policy actions that could help achieve safe air quality levels for one billion people by 2030 – with numerous benefits for public health, economic development and the climate. These range from promoting resource-efficient production processes and technology to introducing fiscal instruments for promoting cleaner production system and technology to promote green growth.   

Progress in achieving clean air will help Bangladesh achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 3 (on health) and SDG 11 (on sustainable consumption), which include the need to reduce the number of deaths attributed to pollution, and pay special attention to air quality.  It will also help it to achieve its international human rights commitments to ensure better health and combat climate change.  

To do all of this, a strong political commitment by those with the power to change legislation, policies and public action continues to be required, as well as increased funding, and changing collective and individual mindsets. Bangladesh needs this now.

The writer is UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh