Nasiruddin Molla, a ride-hailing motorcyclist in Dhaka, took off his sunglasses and showed his eyes as he shared his everyday plight while waiting for passengers at Agargaon.
“Just look at my eyes, they always remain red and dull. Everyone asks me if I haven’t washed my face in the morning. I suffer like this due to dust not just in winter but also when the sun shines. On top of this, I suffer from asthma and allergies.”
“I can’t even wear decent attire for a single day,” a frustrated Nasiruddin said.
Afsar Mia, a rickshaw puller from Azimpur shared an experience similar to Nasiruddin. “I have been working as a rickshaw puller for the past 10 years. The situation is just the same. I can’t breathe and my eyes burn. Also, there's an itch all over the body,” he said.
All of these sufferings are due to the dust and he felt only the almighty can resolve this problem, he said. “Labourers like me toiling on the roads don’t have the luxury to think about this situation. It’s only Allah who protects the poor.”
Residents of Dhaka have been experiencing a much poorer quality of air in the capital since the onset of winter after a favourable autumn.
The drastic drop in air quality is evident in the latest data published by the Air Quality Index, or AQI, on Sunday. Dhaka once again topped the list of cities with the worst air quality, surpassing China’s Shenyang and Chengdu, Vietnam’s Hanoi and India’s Kolkata.
Earlier in October, people in Dhaka could breathe a little easier as the Eid holidays and rainfall in the second week of the month contributed to an improvement in the air quality.
The phenomenon was rather unique because more dust particles are found in the air in October.
However, experts raised alarm at the time, cautioning everyone that the quality of air may worsen in the winter due to the ongoing construction projects across the city.
Experts suggested the authorities take initiatives to prevent air pollution. But the authorities did not take “enough precaution” and never prepared for the upcoming winter which led to the current crisis, the environmentalists said.
“Authorities responsible for the well-being of Dhaka city and its people have not performed their duties well. Have they taken any preventive measures against the air pollution in Dhaka as we have reached the peak of it? No, they haven’t,” said Professor Mohammad Sofi Ullah of the Department of Geography and Environment at Dhaka University.
“They should have understood that such problems increase in winter. Therefore, they should have taken preventive measures before winter set in. This city is a place for so many lives,” he said.
Besides managing the dust issue, city authorities must focus on waste management, said
Prof Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, founder and director of the Centre for Atmospheric Pollution Studies at Stamford University.
“In any case, the air quality remains bad in October, November, and December. This is the ongoing season. The situation deteriorates if it doesn’t rain at all,” he said.
“Dhaka’s air is already polluted and in Dhaka and more polluted air blows into the city from its surroundings because trash is burnt in the waste dumps in Matuail and Amin Bazar or other places.”
MORE DUST DUE TO CONSTRUCTION WORKS
Construction works increase in Dhaka during winter as builders prefer the season with less or no rain. Construction and repair of buildings and roads and other infrastructure lead to more air pollution and suffering of people.
Currently, drains are being constructed at Mohakhali-Gulshan Link Road. “Dust menace increased from the day they started digging the road and constructing the drains. We have a cough and our throats feel dry. Still, there’s no sprinkling of water to reduce the dust. Maybe things will be better when the work ends,” said Md Alam, a roadside vendor.
The authorities were continuing the construction works in an unplanned way, said Farzana Yasmin, working in a private firm and a regular pedestrian in the neighbourhood. “If you go from Amtali to Wireless intersection, you’ll find the road dug and the soil and debris kept at a side. Those particles are always flying in the air. You can’t take off your mask and breathe in peace,” she said.
Road construction from Agargaon to Shyamoli is nearly completed. Patients coming for treatment in the hospitals there and also employees of the government offices and citizens suffered a lot from dust while the construction work was on.
Haider Ali from Thakurgaon has been staying at the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation for the past three months for the treatment of his brother in a road accident.
“There was too much dust when the road construction was in full swing. When we came out to eat at the nearby restaurants, the food felt sandy. The construction work is not completed as yet and therefore, the dust remains. It could be better if the authorities sprayed water regularly,” he said.
Serajul Islam, the owner of a hardware store at Mirpur’s Kazipara, said he “almost died from asthma”. “As long as the metro rail construction continued, my business faced financial loss and I spent thousands for medical treatment; that too only for respiratory illness,” he said.
“Now the dust problem has reduced as the construction work has ended. My shop is no longer covered with dust and I, too, feel better.”
Many Dhaka residents said continuous construction work of residential buildings adds to the air pollution. Ali Newaz, a resident of Uttara, believes his child was suffering from asthma due to the ongoing building construction work next to his house.
“The sand, brick, and cement needed for the house construction are kept openly beside the street. Those particles fly into my home. We need to clean the house with broomsticks two to three times a day. The curtains turn white with dust. My 5-year-old is already suffering from asthma.”
TRAFFIC POLICE, SERVICE PROVIDERS AT RISK
Members of the traffic police are highly affected by the air pollution in Dhaka. One of them working at Azimpur said dust and pollutants fill the air when he works on the road, causing diseases like an allergy. They have no option but to work, he said.
“There’s no end to our plight. We have to stand and work for eight hours with dust and pollution around us. Upon returning home, a huge amount of dust comes out of my clothes,” said Sergeant Zahirul Islam, who was on duty at the aeroplane crossing point of the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar Traffic Zone.
“Many of our colleagues in the traffic department suffer from allergies and asthma as winter hits because of the dust and pollution. I can’t realise it now and just perform my duties. But the manifestation will be there when I grow old.”
“I need to visit the doctor regularly as I have asthma. Another colleague of mine uses an inhaler,’ said another traffic police standing next to Zahirul.
Workers and staff in different service sectors suffer the same as the traffic police. Iqramul Hossain works as a delivery man at a food delivery company in Dhaka. “The roads are full of dust. You see, there’s no visibility. We’ve to work in this environment. It feels suffocating to cycle wearing a mask while delivering food. At the same time, I can’t take off the mask fearing the dust and pollution,” he said.
PEOPLE DISSATISFIED WITH CITY AUTHORITIES
People living in Dhaka are not satisfied with the initiatives taken by the city authorities to curb the dust and pollution in Dhaka during winter. “I can’t run my business as the flowers are spoiled due to dust. I haven’t seen the city corporation spraying water on the road after it was constructed,” said Sohel Mia, a florist in Agargaon.
Matin Mia, another trader at Section 10 in Mirpur, complained he never saw the city corporation workers spraying water on the road despite continuous traffic flow. “They are least bothered about the well-being of people,” he said.
Prof Sofi Ullah expressed his discontent over the city corporation’s measures taken to reduce the dust and pollution on the roads. “Earlier we saw the roads were sprayed with water in winter. This year we don’t see that at all. Actually, we became used to everything and so did the rulers. They think people have no problems as they don’t speak up,” he said.
It was only during the COVID-19 pandemic when the city environment was a little better, which meant the steps taken by the authorities in regular time were not effective, he said.
MORE CASES OF RESPIRATORY ILLNESS
Intense air pollution and dust are causing more respiratory illness in people, believe pulmonologists in the city. They receive more patients in winter.
“We always get more patients with respiratory illnesses in this season. Children and elderly people come with asthma and different respiratory tract problems. Some of them are cured with oral medicines while some need inhalers or antibiotic pills,” said Assistant Prof Md Mesbahul Karim of Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital.
Polluted air may cause allergies, cough, asthma, bronchitis, hypertension, headache, and lung cancer, the physician said.
“We can’t manage the air pollution overnight. Everyone must wear a mask and seek doctors’ advice if their condition deteriorates.”
WHAT CITY AUTHORITIES SAY
The low air quality in Dhaka is very “unfortunate”, said Md Selim Reza, chief executive officer of Dhaka North City Corporation. The city corporation has been “trying its best” to prevent the pollution, he said.
”We must dig the roads for different development projects. We’re trying our best to curb air pollution. We’re the first one to buy a mixed blower worth Tk 140 million and regularly use it to spray water,” he said.
He neither admitted nor denied the allegation that the blower is not actually used regularly. “I’ll be disgruntled as well if I don’t get service. The dust has been affecting my children too.”
Authorities digging any road or neighbourhood are bound to cover the area and spray water regularly, he said. “We hope everyone will do their work properly.”
Many contractors lost permission to work as they did not spray water regularly, the officer said.
Dust coming from the construction sites of different mega projects in Dhaka along with other buildings under construction is responsible for the low air quality in Dhaka, said Md Khairul Baker, superintending engineer of Environment, Climate and Disaster Management Circle at Dhaka South City Corporation.
“We initiated more tree plantations to prevent the dust from flying in the air and spraying water on the roads. We’ll spray more water if needed.”