Winter brings a familiar woe for Dhaka residents: toxic air

The road next to the Registration Complex in Dhaka's Tejgaon has been dug up to install sewage pipes. But as traffic stutters beside the burrowed strip, pedestrians scramble to cover their noses and mouths to avoid the dust being blown by passing vehicles.

Obaidur Masum Senior
Published : 21 Nov 2021, 09:30 PM
Updated : 21 Nov 2021, 09:30 PM

Similar scenes are being played out in other parts of the capital and experts identified the dust raised in the process of road digging as the main cause of air pollution in Dhaka.

With the onset of winter, the perennial concerns have resurfaced over the health risks facing citizens from exposure to high levels of pollution in the city.

Typically, the quality of air deteriorates noticeably during the dry season as dust and other pollutants permeate Dhaka.

After a brief respite during the months of lockdown at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, all signs again point to a continuation of the unwelcome trend this year as life returns to normal.

According to data collected by the Department of Environment, Dhaka's air quality index (AQI) rating soared to an alarming 307 on Nov 17.

For context, an AQI rating of 0-50 represents ‘good’ quality of air while 51-100 is considered ‘moderate’ and 101-150 is deemed ‘dangerous’.

But the air quality is classified as ‘unhealthy’ when the PM levels reach 150-200, ‘very unhealthy’ at 201-300 and ‘hazardous’ at 301-500.

The quality of air depends on the amount of small floating dust particles (particulate matter or PM 10) and fine particles (PM 2.5) in it, measured in micrograms per cubic metre and parts per million or ppm units.

The Air Quality Index is measured on particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) emissions. The higher the AQI value becomes, the riskier the air quality gets.

The DoE's Clean Air and Sustainable Environment or ‘CASE’ project measures the ultra-micro PM2.5 at various points within the jurisdiction of the city corporations.


The Center for Atmospheric Pollution Studies (CAPS) at Stamford University found that road digging and construction work was responsible for around 30 percent of the air pollution in Dhaka in 2020.

According to CAPS data, brick kilns and industrial plants accounted for 29 percent of the pollution, vehicle emissions 15 percent, transboundary pollution 10 percent, pollutants produced by households and cooking stoves 9 percent while waste incineration made up 6 percent of the toxic air.

Experts believe that the level of dust and other harmful particles floating in the air can be reduced if water is sprinkled on construction sites at least twice a day. But that has not been the case in most areas.

At present development work is ongoing in different parts of Dhaka, including Uttara, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Bashundhara residential area, Uttar Khan, Banani, Gulshan, Baridhara, Kalyanpur, Agargaon, Dhanmondi, Azimpur, Lalbagh, Motijheel, Kamalapur.

Various government and non-government service providers, including Dhaka WASA, Titas Gas, DESCO, BTCL, PGCB, DPDC are carrying out development works by digging roads.

In addition, work on the Metro Rail, Elevated Expressway, Bus Rapid Transit projects are underway across the city. RAJUK's Purbachal 300 feet road project and work to widen the thoroughfare from Jatrabari to Demra are also in full swing.


The road excavation policy requires contractors to spray water on the road during the excavation work and up to the point of completion to prevent dust particles from spreading and potentially harming public health.

But the rules have been disregarded in many cases. In some areas, the dug-up soil is left on the side of the road, while in other parts, the trenches have been filled with soil and bricks. But water is not being sprinkled properly in the construction areas.

Throughout Tejgaon's Shaheed Tajuddin Ahmad Avenue, the Tejgaon-Gulshan Link Road and other areas, drainage pipes are being laid alongside the development of footpaths.

Salek Mia, who runs a tea shop on a sidewalk near Tejgaon's Registration Complex, said the holes on the ground had been filled up about a fortnight ago. But it had not been watered ever since.

"They used to sprinkle water when the pipes were being laid. But that is no longer the case."

A part of the work on the drainage system in the area is being carried out by contractor Asif Infrastructure Limited. Abdul Hai, the company's managing director, water was being sprayed on the roads every day, albeit not as frequently as needed.

“There is no denying that dust fills the road. However, it is not possible to spray water all the time. We do not have that support. But we still try to do it.”

Construction work under the BRT project is also raising dust levels in Uttara, much to the dismay of commuters. Saiful Islam, a resident of Tongi, travels daily to and from Mirpur.

Saiful said dust covers the road from Abdullahpur to Gazipur due to the BRT project. Dust also fills the air along the Kalshi Road in Mirpur every day.

“You can see dug-up or dilapidated roads in different places. There is a lot of dust but it's less than before. They don't follow the rules at all. If they sprayed water regularly, it would reduce the level of dust pollution."

As the construction of a four-lane passage from Jatrabari to Demra continues, various points of the stretch are strewn with dust.

Sohrab Hossain, a member of the traffic police on duty near Demra's Staff Quarters, said, "The roads are watered three times a day. However, it dries up shortly after the water is sprayed."

“There is a lot of traffic here. For this reason, the water dries up under the sun within twenty minutes of being sprinkled. The cars passing through raises dust as a result. There is dust on the road all day. Sometimes we spray water on it but the situation is very bad at night. "

'Jamal', a transport supervisor, says water is sprayed twice a day -- one in the morning and again in the afternoon. "The water dries out in 10 minutes. They don't spray it three or four times a day."

"The dust here is unbearable. It's a densely populated area but the public is fed up of it."

Work is underway to install drainage pipes on the road from Old Dhaka's Bakshibazar to Chankharpul. Ditches have been dug up along the road and filled up with sand and brick cobbles. However, due to a lack of regular water spraying, walls of dust often shroud the area.

Abdul Hai, a shopkeeper in front of Dhaka Medical College, said the sewage pipes were installed almost 25 days ago. However, as the road was not repaired, dust was ever-present.

“I saw them water the road once three days ago. But there's been nothing since. We face a lot of problems because of it and even the hospital gets dusty. ”

Work is underway in Azimpur to demolish the old building of the government colony. However, the site has not been covered, allowing dust and other pollutants to spread unimpeded.

Sardar Md Anis, who is overseeing a part of the demolition job, said, "We are not alone here. There are several other groups responsible for demolishing the building. We have brought nets to cover the perimeter around. We will put it up soon."

According to Prof Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, head of Stamford University's Department of Environmental Sciences, Dhaka experiences the highest level of pollution between November and February every year. He blamed non-compliance with building rules in the implementation of various projects as a major cause of the pollution.

Moreover, the directions of the High Court aimed at curbing pollution are also being ignored, he added.

“We know we lack capacity. Therefore, water needs to be sprayed everywhere at least twice a day. We have seen that once water is sprayed, the pollution level remains low for at least an hour and a half.”

Asked about the measures being taken to prevent dust pollution, Dhaka South City Corporation spokesman Abu Naser said, "Companies are permitted to dig roads on the condition that adequate water is sprinkled and the construction site is fenced off. These conditions should be followed."

"We urge the relevant agencies to take more responsibility if the amount of dust increases due to insufficient water-spraying at the site of development work and to comply with the conditions under which have received approval. Everyone should take steps to keep the sufferings of the people to a minimum.”