Bangladesh is losing its battle with air pollution

In the capital Dhaka and beyond, transport and industry emissions continue to blight the ‘most polluted country in the world’ despite strong words from the government
<p>In Dhaka’s Shyampur area, steel re-rolling mills contribute to the Bangladeshi capital’s fog-like, sun-blocking air pollution (Image: Syed Mahabubul Kader / Alamy)</p>

In Dhaka’s Shyampur area, steel re-rolling mills contribute to the Bangladeshi capital’s fog-like, sun-blocking air pollution (Image: Syed Mahabubul Kader / Alamy)

Mahmuda Khatun has travelled west from her home in Bangladesh’s Narsingdi district to the capital. She is fighting to breathe. The 50-year-old asthma sufferer found herself in Dhaka’s National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital following a decline in her condition. “Earlier, her problem worsened only in winter, but in recent years, it deteriorates two to three times in a year,” says Mahmuda’s son, Ahmed Hossain.

Chronic air pollution is shortening average life expectancy rates in Bangladesh. Rapid urbanisation, unregulated construction and the changing climate are also exacerbating acute respiratory diseases and economic losses.

According to a recent study Bangladesh has the most polluted air in the world. The Air Quality Life Index 2023 (compiled by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute with 2021 data) found that the air in Bangladesh had an average PM 2.5 level of 74 micrograms per cubic meter. By contrast, levels of 58.7, 30.2 and 7.8 were recorded for India, China and the US respectively.

The latest World Health Organisation global Air Quality Guidelines, published in 2021, are designed as a set of air quality targets for governments to meet. When the national average pollution of Bangladesh in 2021 is measured against these targets, it is estimated that each resident of the country is losing 6.8 years of life.

Particulate matter and PM 2.5

Particulate matter refers to the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particulate matter comes from natural processes, and it is also from human activities such as burning fuel and construction.

Some particulate matter can cause significant health problems for people, especially particles that are so small they can penetrate deep into the body when inhaled. Of particular concern are particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, known as “PM 2.5”.

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The Third Pole speaks to Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam, the head of Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Services: “Heavy metals that the air carries mix with blood and cause various communicable diseases. There is no denying that air pollution cuts life expectancy.”

Alam does not possess statistics regarding Bangladeshi death rates in relation to air quality, but the surgeon confirms that the number of patients suffering from poor air quality is rising.

Two years of relentlessly unhealthy air

According to Muhammad Ziaul Haque, the environment department’s director of air quality management, the problem is particularly bad in the country’s capital city. “Poor air quality in Dhaka is increasing every year,” he says. “Usually, air quality improves when the rainy season comes, but this year the situation was different due to the late rainy season.”

The severity of air pollution in Bangladeshi cities often makes global headlines. It is caused by an atmospheric soup of emissions from old vehicles, brick kilns, massive construction works and burning fossil fuels and biomass.

There is no denying that air pollution cuts life expectancy
Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam, head of Directorate General of Health Services

According to the environment department, which posts daily pollution data recorded in its cities, the air quality in Dhaka and the neighbouring city of Gazipur (an industrial hub) did not achieve “good” average air quality for any month during 2021 or 2022.

An Air Quality Index score between 0 and 50 is considered “good”, while 151-200 indicates “unhealthy” levels and likely negative health impacts for the general public. In November last year, for example, Dhaka’s average air quality rating was “unhealthy”, peaking at 234 (“very unhealthy”) on 23 November.

Construction and transport pollution

Government officials tell The Third Pole that tackling national air pollution requires overhauling several sectors.

For example, pollution caused by Bangladesh’s kiln-fired brick industry prompted a national sustainability strategy in 2017. “We are penalising the authorities, but it is not working,” says Haque. “Construction companies rarely listen to us.”

The government had therefore been focussing on phasing out bricks from governmental or government-sponsored construction by June 2025, but Haque says this has been derailed by factors including the pandemic. A new target of 2029 has now been proposed.  

The Third Pole speaks to Abdus Salam, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Dhaka. He is sceptical of these government construction claims: “Let alone the private construction sites, there are a number of megaprojects [almost all backed by the government] going on across Dhaka, but how many were [subject to these regulations] during the construction works?”

Haque says ageing vehicles are another major cause of Bangladesh’s poor air quality: incomplete fuel combustion, common among older vehicles, releases the dangerous air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Salam confirms: “The older the vehicle, the more pollution it causes.”

The September 2023 study “State of Global Air: South Asia, a Regional Air Quality Snapshot” says the growing concentration of NO2 in Dhaka’s air (the opposite of global trends) is now a cause for serious concern.

NO2 exposure can irritate airways, aggravate existing respiratory diseases, increase the risk of asthma in children, and increase the frequency and severity of asthma symptoms in children and adults. This pollutant is not only impacting human health, but it is depleting Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer.

In August 2023, the government – under pressure from transport businesses – decided not to implement its own order to cap the working life of commercial buses and lorries at 20 and 25 years respectively. This means tens of thousands of decades-old vehicles may remain on Bangladesh’s roads.

According to data from the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, the number of vehicles on the road without a road fitness certificate is growing. As of April, about 568,000 registered vehicles did not have fitness certificates – 60,000 more than in January 2022.

Indoor and transboundary air pollution

As people grow increasingly concerned about outdoor air quality in Bangladesh, the air is often no safer at home. Data collected by the National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital shows its admissions related to indoor air pollution are on the rise, from 11,783 admissions during 2020 to 15,942 in 2022.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 77% of households still use biomass (such as leaves, wood and dry dung) for cooking fuel, which is a major source of air pollution in rural areas.

“We have to ensure clean fuel in every part of the country,” says Haque. “It will take a huge amount of time to shift this vast cooking system.”

Meanwhile, air pollution is drifting into Bangladesh from elsewhere; unfit road vehicles, brick kilns and cooking with biomass are all polluting the air in Nepal and India, too. Earlier this year, the World Bank published “Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia”. The report says that due to prevailing northwest-to-southeast winds, an estimated 30% of pollution in Bangladesh’s largest cities originates in north India.

Winter haze over northern India and Bangladesh, 5 February 2014 (Image: Jeff Schmaltz / NASA Earth Observatory)

To combat transboundary air pollution, four South Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan – agreed on the need to reduce national annual average PM 2.5 levels to 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2030. The declaration was forged in Nepal in December 2022, during meetings facilitated by the World Bank and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

According to Haque however, this transboundary agreement has yet to garner political endorsement: “It will take time.”

International finance and national initiatives

According to September’s “State of Global Air Quality Funding 2023” report by the NGO Clean Air Fund, Bangladesh was the third-top recipient of international funding for outdoor air quality improvements between 2017 and 2021. During this period, the country received 17% of such funding, behind China (37%) and the Philippines (20%). The report also says Bangladesh received USD 2.4 billion in international development funding for air quality improvement between 2015 and 2021.

These international funds appear to be supported by national actions. The government has formed a high-powered air pollution committee, headed by the cabinet secretary and populated with the senior secretaries of relevant ministries.  

According to Saber Hossain Chowdhury, an environment and climate change envoy to the prime minister, clean air legislation is progressing. Following the drafting of a Clean Air Act, the government’s cabinet division chose to incorporate it into 1995’s Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act. This led to the publication of Air Pollution Control Rules in 2022. These rules form the basis for the National Air Quality Management Plan, which Haque says will be finalised in early 2024.

But there is a big issue in actually implementing these rules, especially without clear data, according to Haque. In 2018, The Third Pole reported that the environment department was running three continuous air-monitoring stations (CAMs) in Dhaka; Haque says another 13 CAMs were in place across Bangladesh at the time, but only one more has been installed in the intervening six years, at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in Dhaka. Haque adds that these stations can only measure PM 2.5 and cannot identify emission sources.

However, Chowdhury remains bullish: “We have identified sources of both indoor and outdoor pollution and it is time to act.” He says monitoring cells will be established to align private construction activities with air pollution initiatives, for example. “We are on a war footing against air pollution in Bangladesh.”