A layer of dust blankets a street at Postogola in Dhaka. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

Bangladesh has been suffering from the presence of a high level of particulate matter (PM) in its air for about three decades. Air quality monitoring by the Department of Environment reveals that the air in all of the divisional and commercial cities of the country is polluted with very great concentrations of PM2.5 (PM with aerodynamic diameters equal or less than 2.5 micrometres), especially in the dry season from November to April when the concentrations of PM2.5 rise as much as six to sevenfold of the guideline value set by the World Health Organization.

Dhaka and its neighbouring districts like Narayanganj and Gazipur are the most polluted cities while Sylhet is the least polluted; Chattogram is moderately polluted, and Khulna and Rajshahi cities are also highly polluted. Some international air monitoring organisations, including the WHO and the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, have published a series of reports on Bangladesh’s air quality.

The State of Global Air 2020 report, published by the Global Health Burden project of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimated about 214,480 early deaths in 2019 in Bangladesh due to exposure to both ambient and indoor air pollution. Researchers also found poor quality shortening the lifespan of the people living in South Asian countries by about four years. The economic loss to air pollution’s impact on this region is, in a true sense, enormous.

Numbers of mitigating steps have been taken at different times to improve air quality, especially in Dhaka, but sometime after the implementation of those initiatives, air pollution levels have returned to their previous marks due to excessive population influx, a boom in industrial and construction activities, brick-kilns, and activities of other small and medium enterprises. Once tagged as the “Gas Chamber” due to excessive emissions of hydrocarbons and Volatile Organic Compounds from the two-stroke three-wheelers called “Baby Taxi”, Dhaka is now the second-most polluted capital city in the world due to emissions from brick-kilns, biomass burning, constructions, outdated heavy-duty vehicles, long-range PM2.5, etc. After a nine-point direction from the High Court, the DoE undertook massive enforcement programmes, including the demolition of hundreds of illegal brick-kilns in the country. Dhaka South and North City Corporations were also found sprinkling water on the streets during the dry season.

Notwithstanding, the air pollution of Dhaka city has been increasing in recent years.

According to the US Embassy data, the annual PM2.5 concentrations in the city were 80.0, 100.0 and 94.0 µg/m3 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively while the acceptable level is 15 µg/m3. In these circumstances, a sustainable, cost-effective control solution to this calamity becomes imperative in order to systematically improve the air quality without affecting the development of the country.

To make this happen, the DoE drafted a Clean Air Bill in 2019 upon consultation with the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association or BELA, and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology or BUET. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, however, has recently finalised the Air Pollution Control Rules 2021 keeping most of the points in the draft law unaltered. The draft APCR 2021 is posted to the website of the ministry for public opinion.

This article is intended to discuss how the APCR may be expected to help achieve sustainable improvement in the air quality of the country, as well as the challenges of the implementation and enforcement of the rules. Some salient features of the draft APCR and relevant discussions are as follows:

(a) The APCR has proposed delegating the Department of Environment to formulate a National Air Quality Management Plan. The Plan would be the fundamental document that will guide all the relevant stakeholders in achieving sustainable air quality in every region of the country. This plan would be prepared considering the existing sources, socio-economic conditions, topographical features, meteorological seasonal variations, and other important parameters that influence the air quality of a region. It may be expected that the formulation and proper implementation of an effective Plan could be helpful in managing the current high air pollution scenario of the country.

(b) The government, by this rule, will be able to declare a place ‘Degraded Airshed’ if the place continuously shows its air quality over permissible limits. The DoE will prepare a time-based Air Quality Improvement Plan in consultation with the local stakeholders to improve the air quality of the ‘Degraded Airshed’. The government will restrict the establishment of new industries and/or other settlements that might be considered detrimental to the air quality of that area, and also will relocate the existing sources from the airshed to other places.

(c) The DoE, upon approval from the government, can publish a list of events or activities that would be considered detrimental to the environment, health, society, economy, etc. of a place. The DoE will issue directives to control those activities.

(d) According to the draft rules, government organisations involved with the construction activities, especially the local government organisations, are also directed to oblige by the norms of air quality management around the sites of construction/repairing/rebuilding. Several such norms/activities around those sites are suggested in the rules.

(e) A high level national executive committee has been proposed to be formed under the draft rules. The committee will be comprised of secretary-level government officials from the relevant ministries, government institutions and public universities. This committee will oversee the progress and effectiveness of the air quality management strategies/activities, and the air quality improvement plan taken in the “Degraded Airshed”.

(f) In the draft rules, there is a provision for awarding a person/institute for outstanding contribution to improving the air quality of a region. At the same time, up to two years imprisonment or up to Tk 200,000 fines have been proposed for the violation of the rules.

(g) Revisions of the ambient air quality and emission standards of all types of sources have also been proposed. They will be included as schedules of the rules. This is important because the current Ambient Air Quality Standards were set about 15 years ago and their revision is highly necessary. Existing vehicular emission standards are outdated compared even to the neighbouring countries. Emission standards for several industries are also not so well-defined in the existing rules. The new set of ambient and emission standards proposed in the APCR is expected to provide the DoE with a strong ground to take actions effectively in order to ensure healthy air in the country.

The success of the APCR will entirely depend on the preparation and implementation of the Air Quality Management Plan/Strategy/Guideline for the whole country and of the Air Quality Improvement Plan for the “Degraded Airshed” area. The rightness of those plans will be scored on their relevance with the socio-economic structures, topographical features, meteorological variations and existing sources. Results from a lot of technical works like emission inventories, source apportionment, air and meteorology monitoring, dispersion modelling, etc. will be the major materials for the formulation of the Management and Improvement Plans. The APCR does not contain any clause about the monetary supply and technical capacity buildup of the DoE, which will be needed for conducting those technical works and even for the enforcement of those plans. In the schedules of the APCR, a brief emission test method, and minimum stack height have been provided for the brick-kiln industries; and also a minimum distance between two kilns is set 1km. But, it is unclear why such method and distances are not set for other highly emitting industries, like steel mills, cement factories, etc. Setting a minimum distance among the industries is important to avert clustering of the industries, especially to the upwind directions.

So, all-out source inventory and source apportionment studies are needed as early as possible. They will enable the authorities to consider at an initial stage the alternatives to the prime sources and/or proper emission control measures.

Md Masud Ranais an air quality expert and former consultant for the Clean Air and Sustainable Environment Project of the Department of Environment.

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