Air Pollution Casts a Pall Over Booming Bangladesh Megacity

Dhaka’s air quality is among the world’s worst, due to traffic, construction, and industrial pollution. For its 20 million residents, solutions are desperately needed. 

Rush hour along Dhaka’s Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, a serpentine road that bisects the Bangladeshi capital, resembles a chaotic citywide evacuation.

Thousands of cars, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, vans and double-decker buses, all vying for an inch of space, crawl forward like an urban glacier, spewing out great clouds of sulfurous exhaust.

“It’s terrible here,” says Rakibul Hasan, a 24-year-old selling bus tickets on the side of the street. “My nose is always blocked; it’s filled with dirt. I’m coughing all the time. It doesn’t take a doctor to see that this is not good for my health.”

Polluted City Peter Yeung Bloomberg CityLab 1000x750

By many measures, Dhaka has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The South Asian megacity regularly tops the rankings of IQAir, a real-time worldwide air quality monitoring index. The city’s average readings for PM10 – coarse particles of pollution like dust – and PM2.5 – fine particles mostly created by combustion – were six and nine times greater than World Health Organization guidelines between 2003 and 2019, according to a recent study in Frontiers for Sustainable Cities.

Since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, its capital has exploded into one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. Dhaka’s traffic congestion is monumental – average driving speeds have plummeted to 4.5 kilometres per hour, around walking speed. But that’s only one of several factors that darken the skies over a massive metro area of more than 20 million people. Coal-fired brick kilns, dust from roads and construction sites, industrial pollution and smog blown in from neighbouring nations join diesel and gasoline fumes from local vehicles to create a toxic atmospheric stew, damaging the physical and mental health of residents in a low-lying city that’s already exceptionally vulnerable to climate change impacts.

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