As a large, populous, disaster-prone delta, Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to climate change. The intense frequency of natural disasters has led to an influx of climate refugees to the capital city, Dhaka. Estimates say Bangladesh is beset by over 10 million climate refugees, and some 2,000 people move to Dhaka every day.

The megacity groans under the weight of rural migration. The influx of rural migrants means Dhaka’s population density has reached a staggering 49,000 per square kilometre. The rapid, unplanned urban expansion has led to the removal of green spaces. This pressure is felt in the drinking water, the food and the breathing air. Bangladeshis, particularly Dhaka-dwellers, constantly have to battle climate change and the less-spoken-about threat of air pollution.

Drivers of air pollution

Many of the sources of poor air quality and greenhouse gas emissions are common. However, air pollution is the most severe in urban areas, particularly in Dhaka – the city that is disproportionately bigger than any other in the country. Therefore, it is imperative for policy-makers to prioritise Dhaka in order to curb the air pollution that is occurring in a rapidly urbanising Bangladesh. Studies by the country’s environment oversight agency, the Department of Environment, along with the World Bank identify the drivers of urban air pollution as population growth, vehicular emissions, construction sites, biomass burning and unplanned brick production.

From a socioeconomic point of view, pollutants such as particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10) and carbon monoxide (CO) harm the well-being of Dhaka’s residents. According to a Department of Environment and World Bank report from 2018, of these six hazardous air pollutants, PM 2.5 is the most harmful.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a warning system used in many global cities to real-time track air pollution. It is a tool to keep the public informed on the air they breathe. The AQI is measured on the basis of the key pollutants. The index usually has a range between 1 and 300, with anything above 100 being unhealthy.

Public health outcomes

A 2022 World Bank report states that Dhaka’s particulate matter (PM 2.5) is 150% above the standard threshold recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Construction and dense traffic cause the most air pollution. The second-biggest source is the brick kilns, concentrated around Dhaka, contributing 136% above the WHO red line. This is equivalent to a child with comorbidities smoking 1.7 cigarettes per day. It can similarly harm an expecting mother.

…after cardiovascular disease, particulate pollution is the second-greatest threat to life expectancy in Bangladesh.

PM 2.5 is microscopic in size. It can penetrate deep into the lungs, the bloodstream and the vital organs. With prolonged exposure, air pollution can lead to tuberculosis, pneumonia and cataracts. Research shows that, from 2010 to 2019, PM 2.5 exposure in Bangladesh increased by 12%, with 31,300 deaths attributable to it.

According to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, after cardiovascular disease, particulate pollution is the second-greatest threat to life expectancy in Bangladesh. The research confirms that air pollution is cutting Dhaka residents’ life expectancy by eight years. In comparison, tobacco use reduces life expectancy by 2.1 years.

Construction and motor vehicles in the air

As the epicentre of Bangladesh’s economic boom, Dhaka has seen a proliferation of large-scale construction for over a decade. Bangladesh environmental regulator, the Department of Environment, has issued regulations for appropriate covers at construction sites to prevent dust. It is standard practice to protect the surrounding air during the construction phase. In addition, stockpiled building materials (like sand and rods) should be aptly covered and watered twice a day. These basic regulations are not being followed, however. In Bangladesh, implementing these simple practices is an uphill battle because around 33 government agencies are involved in their enforcement.

Another spillover effect of the economic boom in Dhaka is its motor vehicles. Dhaka, which is just one-fifth of London’s area but has more than double the population, saw an astonishing 71% rise in registered vehicles between 2011 and 2023. These have significantly increased traffic congestion, which results in serious emissions. To mitigate this, policymakers have taken initiatives such as banning harmful lead in gasoline. Bangladesh was the first nation in South Asia to do this.

In 2002, Bangladesh began enforcing strict regulations on high hydrocarbon emission-releasing vehicles (like diesel cars). This has been an effective intervention to reduce emissions.

In accordance with the Paris Agreement, Bangladesh has pledged to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions by 3.4 million tons. The policy is to rapidly boost the share of electric vehicles (EVs) to at least 30% of all vehicles by 2030. This will entail duty cuts and attractive incentives integrated into its fiscal policy (public budgeting).

Civil society advocacy

In Bangladesh, civil society has been at the forefront in countering air pollution. In 2019, a targeted law, the Clean Air Bill, was jointly drafted by the government and a professional civil society group called the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers’ Association. Another organisation, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (essentially an environmental movement), has been on the frontline for several climate change initiatives since 2000.

The pathway to clean air begins with awareness. For the first time in Bangladesh, a prominent civil society organisation, Shakti Foundation, has pioneered an air pollution awareness campaign for Dhaka. The campaign visually demonstrates the impact of ambient air on the lungs.

Billboards with artificially functioning ‘lungs,’ with breathing simulation, have been publicly displayed in busy areas to show the time needed for the ‘lung’ to get completely muddy. Real-time AQI sensors have been put on the billboards. As more air pollutants go into the lung, it changes from white to inky black.

Women carrying stacks of red bricks in a brickyard, outskirts of Dhaka city, Bangladesh, 6 July 2018 | Photo by Khurshid Alam.

This installation-style awareness has already gained traction in Nepal and India. In Nepal, the United States Agency for International Development’s Clean Air, in partnership with the Health Ministry and local government, launched the installation in the capital Kathmandu in 2023. The lungs darkened within 21 days.

In New Delhi, the lungs started darkening within 24 hours. They turned completely black in a shocking six days. In the port city of Mumbai, the lungs blackened within eight days. The civil society leader of the campaign in Mumbai stated that statistics did not convey the seriousness of air pollution to the common folk, hence public engagement needs such innovative designs.

In Dhaka, the first round of this campaign was launched in late 2023. The Dhaka lungs turned black in just 21 days. On average, the AQI during this time period was three times the WHO limit. The results have been a brutal eye-opener for the masses.

Another awareness round with fresh white lungs commenced shortly thereafter in the same locality. This time, it was peak winter, which is the worst season for air pollution in Bangladesh’s cities. In winter, emissions are trapped because of the cold dry air and calm winds. On this occasion, the white lungs darkened within just 14 days.

Community engagement

When it comes to air pollution issues, specialised campaigns can build awareness and catalyse policy action. In Bangladesh, Shakti Foundation’s campaign of visually displaying ‘lungs’ had impacts on local residents. Additionally, the lungs were taken around Dhaka’s top advocacy events to raise awareness among decision-makers and citizens.

To raise awareness among young people, the campaign collaborated at the school level. Enthusiastic students from primary schools were told how individual behaviours could reduce air pollution. The way forward is to inspire the future generation into becoming responsible decision-makers.

However, these measures are the least desirable choice in the hierarchy of interventions. Changes in public policies can slash emissions the fastest. The installation is a support tool to curb air pollution through policy actions.

Policy interventions

As the world reeled from the lockdown-era of covid-19 pandemic of 2020, South Asia’s air quality improved drastically as a result of the stoppage of outdoor activities. The overall reduction of AQI in the initial lockdown phase of 2020, compared with 2019, is reported as 16% in Dhaka, 41% in Delhi, 32% in Kathmandu and 33% in Colombo. The lockdowns pushed authorities to reevaluate major air pollution drivers like construction and transport.

The lockdowns pushed authorities to reevaluate major air pollution drivers like construction and transport.

To protect Dhaka-dwellers from the harmful effects of air pollution, Bangladeshi policy-makers have to bring concentrations of air pollutants to WHO-recommended levels. The first step is to identify and rank the pollutant sources. In light, PM 2.5 source apportionment is critical, as it can originate from a wide range of places. Policy-makers have to engage with transport, land-use and urban planning stakeholders. Bangladesh’s local governments can be key change agents.

There are promising examples. Dhaka city’s government (the northern part), in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, WHO and Vital Strategies, has installed an entire network of low-cost sensors to improve its monitoring. More collaboration to track real-time air pollution is needed for effective emission control strategies.

Such sensors, unfortunately, react with ambient pollution and traffic, causing a decline in accuracy with time. Thus, localised granular-level development of real-time air pollution measurements to guide emission control strategies is required. Here, emitting sectors, such as transport, should be engaged.

Europe decoupled its economic activity and air pollution between 1960 and 2010, through strict enforcement of air pollution control policies, by mandating efficient end-of-pipe cleaning devices such as catalytic converters. Catalytic converters in vehicles regulate harmful pollution from exhaust fumes. They have an average lifespan of 10 years. Bangladesh’s air pollution control focuses heavily on vehicle exhaust emissions. Therefore, the country’s transport policy warrants a rigorous fitness check system where all vehicles older than a decade have to do routine emissions testing.

Environmental activists march to the Mayor’s office to protest against the felling of trees without community’s input, Dhanmondi neighbourhood, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 21 May 2023 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Bangladesh passed the Air Pollution Control Rules in 2022 to set standards for air pollution. The country’s environment protection agency, the Department of Environment, has been empowered to deem highly polluted areas ‘degraded airsheds.’ Non-compliance with the Rules will invoke punitive action, including two years in jail. This enhanced legal framework, including a full-fledged law to curb air pollution, will strengthen the regulatory regime.

The full law, the Clean Air Bill, has become crucial to control air pollution in Bangladesh. This law sets clear guidelines on how to deal with construction materials, on and off site, among other clean air imperatives. For example, the law would help combat the spreading of uncovered dust from large freight vehicles carrying buildings. More importantly, any public or private sector organisation that violates a law pertaining to air pollution can be subject to a penalty of 10 years imprisonment.

Policy interventions based on market incentives for pollution control are always preferable to traditional top-down processes. Market-friendly interventions also fuel innovation, resulting in cost efficiency. To ensure the best results, punitive measures and incentives should go hand in hand. These interventions can create civic engagement to strengthen environmental governance.


Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

Labiba Rahman is Strategic Advisor for the Climate Change Programme at Shakti Foundation, Bangladesh. She is an impact finance expert. Her work focuses on climate action, sustainable finance, greenspace interventions and ecosystem management. She pursued her graduate studies at George Mason University.