The air-pollution time bomb is ticking in Dhaka city.
It was in the afternoon last Sunday. As the on-duty traffic sergeant waved his hands, vehicles waiting there started moving, and the Zero Point intersection in the city's Gulistan area became engulfed in a cloud of dust within seconds.
Some covered their faces with handkerchiefs while others walked along the road nonchalantly as if nothing had happened.
"Now you are seeing the least amount of dust because it rained in the last few days," said the traffic sergeant named Mehedi Hasan.
"It is very difficult to stay on the road in the thick dust cloud. Sometimes we cannot see the vehicles even from close up," he added.
A few days ago the Dhaka South City Corporation dug up a section of Abdul Gani Road in front of the Bangladesh Power Development Board office to lay a sewerage line. Now the Dhaka Power Development Company is digging the same road to lay an electricity line. The sand in the dug area is left open, as is the soil that has been removed from the dug-out.
The situation is even worse at the High Court Mazar intersection where the construction of the Dhaka Metro Rail is going on. The clouds of dust from the metro rail project, the recently finished DSCC drainage project, and the ongoing power line installation project appear to have mingled at the same place.
The air around the Bangladesh Secretariat, the National Press Club, the Railway Ministry, and the Department of Food is now heavy with dust, even though it is only the beginning of the dry season.
The worst is yet to come.
The Metro Rail project is also being implemented in Mirpur and from Farmgate to Motijheel. At the same time other government agencies are constantly digging-up roads all over the city for construction and maintenance work. The whole of Dhaka is thereby turning into a dust cloud.
Dhaka's poor air quality
Experts say the air quality in Dhaka city is getting worse day by day. This is reflected in different national and international air pollution indices too. Officials of the Department of the Environment, whose task is to control pollution, also agree that the quality of air in the city is falling.
According to the Bangladesh National Ambient Air Quality Standard, the tolerable level of the most critical pollutant PM2.5 is 65 micrograms per cubic metre for a 24-hour average. But in November last year, the highest amount of PM2.5 was found in the Mirpur area at 204 micrograms per cubic metre.
The tolerable level of particulate matter (PM10) pollution is 150 micrograms per cubic metre for a 24-hour average. But the maximum amount of PM10 was found to be 513 micrograms per cubic meter in the same Mirpur area the same month.
One of the main causes of dust pollution in the city is the flouting of construction guidelines in development projects, both public and private.
The Metro Rail project, uncontrolled road digging by different government agencies as well as private construction like building houses are constant sources of dust in the city's roads and lanes.
"Construction is done every day everywhere in the world. There is a word called construction management. It is a part of how well-managed our construction projects are,"
said Adil Mohmmed Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners.
"Our performance in construction management is very poor. This is one of the reasons for the increasing level of dust here," he observed.
"Many international contractors are involved in construction projects in Bangladesh. When they work in other countries, they abide by the rules and regulations of those countries to protect the environment. But whenever they work in Bangladesh, they pay little heed to this aspect. The only reason for this is a lack of proper monitoring by our regulatory agencies," Adil Mohmmed Khan pointed out.
Sand and cement are key construction material. As cement is kept in a packet, there is little spillage during transportation. But sand is transported uncovered so sand-laden trucks often drop some sand on the city roads and create dust.
Govt efforts to stop dust pollution
Nearly 8,000 sweepers of the two city corporations sweep the city every morning to keep it clean.
"As the roads of the city are not smooth, dust and sand accumulates in small holes on the roads," said DSCC chief waste management officer Zahid Hossain.
The chief waste management officers at the two city corporations have sent proposals to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to buy 19 road sweepers to clean the city roads efficiently.
Last year the Dhaka South City Corporation sprayed water on key roads in 15 areas in the city with its eight water trucks.
"We spray nearly three and a half lakh of litres of water on the city roads every day," said Dhaka South City Corporation officials.
Abul Hasnat Md Ashraful Alam, the superintending engineer at the Dhaka North City Corporation, told The Business Standard that ten water trucks of the city corporation spray water to reduce dust from the roads in the north city.
Last year, the Dhaka North City Corporation sprayed four to five lakh litres of water on the roads daily to keep the road dust-free in the dry season, said city corporation officials.
"We are going to spray water on the roads in a week or so. In most cases we have to spray from early morning because the traffic increases later in the morning," said Abul Hasnat Md. Ashraful Alam.
City corporation officials believe that water spraying on roads is not an ideal solution. The most important task is to stop the creation of dust.
Sarwar Jahan, a retired professor of the department of urban and regional planning of BUET, said besides construction management, the city authorities will have to plant more trees in open spaces because this also helps in reducing dust in a city.
"The city corporations will have to bring the level of dust down by monitoring construction projects. Rajuk will have to make sure that people do not dump sand in public places," said Sarwar Jahan.
Experts say that it is necessary to enforce existing laws to make people abide by the law.
A new law in the offing
Ziaul Haque, director for air quality monitoring at the Department of the Environment told The Business Standard that they are now putting more emphasis on curbing the operation of traditional brick kilns that pollute the air the most.
When asked about dust pollution by construction projects, he said that they have served a show-cause notice on the contractor agency of the Metro Rail project for causing dust pollution. They have also been asked to spray water in construction areas.
He also said that they have written many times to other agencies who dig roads. Last year they had meetings with these agencies to deal with dust pollution.
Ziaul Haque claimed that in the existing Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act there is no provision to punish someone for causing dust pollution through construction projects.
He added that they have already drafted a law titled 'Clean Air Act 2019', keeping enough provisions for punishment over construction-related dust pollution.
"When parliament passes the law, we will have greater scope to punish people for dust pollution," said Ziaul Haque.
"We will fine the metro rail project if it does not abide by the rules and regulations in the new dry season," said Ziaul Haque.
He said they asked Dhaka City Corporation to take necessary measures to reduce dust. "But they did not listen to us," he claimed.
"We will again organise coordination meetings and urge them to be serious about this matter," he added.