Dhaka Turning into Dystopia with Degrading Air Quality

Dhaka’s degrading air quality (Source: The Daily Star, 2017).

Air pollution is one of the most clichéd phenomena in the unban centers all around the world and Dhaka; the capital of Bangladesh would certainly hold a prime position in this setting. With myriads of economical, political and especially, infrastructural and environmental issues, it is not an exaggeration to say that in the 100th year of independence in 2071 there might be a documentary broadcasted on international media namely ‘Dhaka: The City That Once Was’. The megacity comprises of Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) and five adjacent municipal areas covering a total area of 1,353 km2. According to Gurjar et.al. (2010), five megacities in the world have excessive number of deaths which is caused by air pollution with Dhaka holding the top position just ahead of Cairo and Beijing. These megacities were distinguished with regards to acute health hazards caused by air pollution in comparison to other megacities.

In Dhaka, the increased PM in the ambient air can be traced to certain anthropogenic sources. A study conducted by Norwegian Institute of Air Research (NILU) in 2013 shows that 58 percent of PM 2.5 pollution is attributable to brick kilns. The rest of constituents of major sources of air pollution in Dhaka are vehicles, road dust and work-in-progress of infrastructures contributing 18-19 percent, 10 percent and 8-9 percent to air pollution respectively (The Daily Star, 2018). The study assesses the short-term and long-term impact of air pollution on the citizen’s of Dhaka city for the year 2010 and acknowledges that the long term effects of air pollution morphed into respiratory and cardiovascular diseases led to 6,684 deaths per year solely for people of 30 years and more.  

Air Quality Index for Bangladesh
AQI Range
0 to 100
101 to 200
201 to 300
Very unhealthy
Extremely unhealthy
Source: Air Quality Management Project, 2003

Air quality, by virtue of being a public good, has a non-existent market and therefore, the prime reason for its degradation is undoubtedly market failure. Based on the Air Quality Index (AQI) maintained by Department of Environment (DoE) in Bangladesh, the national environmental monitoring authority, Dhaka’s air pollution level was 330, denoting an ‘extremely unhealthy’ quality of air. This national environmental monitoring body assesses the air quality in the capital city through three continuous air-monitoring stations (CAMS) and monitors the concentration level of different pollutants including PM10 and PM2.5. Nevertheless, the CAMS do not differentiate among the exact pollutant being measured as per the AQI. According to an official of DoE the prevalence of other pollutants are insignificant to be distinguished.

Due to implementation of Government command and control policy the contribution of motor vehicles in the air quality degradation has decreased significantly. Such policy played an inevitable role by banning Leaded fuel in 1999 and tightening of emissions standards for motor vehicles in 2002 (Wadud and Khan, 2011). Now, brick kilns have become the conspicuous force contributing to air pollution in the capital with significant increase in number. Almost all of the brick factories are using Fixed Chimney Kiln (FCK) technology, which uses coal as a primary fuel due to its cost effectiveness (Hossain, 2008). “Brick kilns also consume 5 million tonnes of coal and 3 million tonnes of wood annually, in the process emitting 15 million tonnes of carbon into the air”- says a DoE official (Thompson Reuters, 2017). The growing nature of real estate and infrastructure sector in Bangladesh are feeding into the increase of demand for brick kilns and consequently burning of biomass and low quality coal. Another major source of PM pollutant worth mentioning, in congruence with the findings of NILU, is motor vehicle. Most of the roads in Dhaka are frequently dug up to facilitate the utility sector or for construction of the metro rail and the elevated expressway. These phenomena along with the lack of sufficient paved roads cause such massive dissemination of PMs in the air of the capital through vehicles, especially during the dry season.  

Brick Kilns in Dhaka, (Source: Dhaka Tribune, 2018)

Since the issue is specific to the capital only, it can be said that a policy for Non-Uniform Mixing pollutants can be applicable to control such spatial aspects of pollution. The location of the pollution creator can be easily identified ex-ante and possible regulations can be formulated with regards to the eligibility to establish brick kilns in certain areas, especially near densely populated urban areas. The most applicable command and control tools are input controls and technology control in case of Dhaka city. Minimum standards of coal should be used as inputs in the brick factories and innovative and environment friendly ways to manufacture bricks should be implemented. The best market based instrument applicable in this particular setting is emissions abatement and resource management subsidies where the brick manufacturers are motivated to deviate from using sub-par materials that cause air quality degradation. For the next prominent air pollutant contributor, motor vehicles, Command and Control instruments would work the best with controlling technology and location of activities. A strict ban on unfit vehicles would reduce the national health cost caused by air-pollution induced illness.

There are pros and cons of all of the proposed tools. The compliance of command and control policies would certainly increase the input costs and reduce profit for the manufacturers of bricks or if the cost is passed down to the buyer the price in real-estate and construction sector would increase which might lead to overall economic contraction. For motor vehicles, controlling the location of plying might not be cost efficient for the public sector, as it requires sufficient investment in human resource and technology.

In the end, it can be said that while the economic growth is extremely desirable for a low-income country like Bangladesh a minimum pollution will have be accepted despite being detrimental to environment. Public-Private Partnerships can play an influential role in providing sufficient infrastructure to implement the proposed policies.  Respective authorities should amend the Brick Production and Brick Kiln Building (Control) Act (2013) to account for the pollution, damage to agricultural land and other environmental threats caused by brick production. Finally, a crowd-sourced Air Quality-monitoring network can be built to broadcast free hourly AQI information for major cities in Bangladesh.


The Daily Star.net, 2018. Alarming fall in city's air quality, The Daily Star, [online] Available at: <http://www.thedailystar.net/editorial/alarming-fall-citys-air-quality-1540492> [Accessed 9 April 2018]

Gurjar, B.R., Jain, A., Sharma, A., Agarwal, A., Gupta, P., Nagpure, A.S., Lelieveld, J.,
Human health risks in megacities due to air pollution. Atmospheric Environment, [online] Available at: < http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231010006734>[Accessed 9 April 2018]

Hossain, I. 2008. Impact of Brick kiln pollution on Dhaka City. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY ENHANCEMENTS AND EMERGING ENGINEERING RESEARCH, [online] Available at: < http://centers.iub.edu.bd/chpd/Pres_Sem_Ijaz%20Hossain_Aprl%2017-08.pdf >[Accessed 9 April 2018]

Hossain, M., 2017. To cut brick kiln pollution, Bangladesh constructs new building materials. Thomson Reuters Foundation, [online] Available at:< https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bangladesh-construction-climatechange/to-cut-brick-kiln-pollution-bangladesh-constructs-new-building-materials-idUSKBN1D81IA> [Accessed 9 April 2018]

Wadud , Z., and Khan, T., 2011. CNG Conversion of Motor Vehicles in Dhaka: Valuation of the Co-benefits, Bangladesh Environment, [online] Available at: < http://www.bangladeshenvironment.com/index.php/others/299-cng-conversion-of-motor-vehicles-in-dhaka-valuation-of-the-co-benefits> [Accessed 9 April 2018]

Author Information

Sultana Shahreen Karim is studying MSc in Sustainable Development and Environmental Economics in University of St Andrews. She has done MBA and BBA in Finance in University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and aspires to combine her business insights with development and environmental economics for efficient application of theories.  
email: ssk@st-andrews.ac.uk, shahreen@du.ac.bd


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