Approximately four million city dwellers currently live in deplorable conditions in around five thousand slums in Dhaka. These slum dwellers hold very little resources and are among some of the hardest hit communities when it comes to protecting themselves against the degraded environment. The inevitable repercussions of an adverse environment eventually reduces their income opportunities as well.
This article, therefore, raises the overarching question: does environmental inequality still remain unaddressed?
Greater employment opportunities, better-paid jobs, a higher standard of living, improved health care and education system are some of the 'pull factors' that attract people to live in the cities. More than 80 per cent of global GDP is generated in cities and around 55 per cent of the world's population will live in cities and by 2050, nearly 7 out of 10 people.
Most megacities are located in the global south. Karachi, Dhaka, Mumbai, Delhi and Lahore are among the 20 largest cities in the world. Now the question is, how prepared are these cities to accommodate the newcomers? Or, stepping back a bit, how are the current dwellers doing in these cities?
Urban vulnerable at the front seat of environmental inequality
Cities display inequalities; environmental inequality is less scrutinized though its increasing importance is observed across and within countries over time, particularly in cities as they are likely to be the 'hotspots' of global warming impacts.
In cities, environmental inequality means the poor quality environment for the urban vulnerable. In addition to carrying the burden of economic hardship, the urban vulnerable population bear the brunt of environmental deprivation.
In Dhaka, people living in the slums and other informal settlements are the worst sufferers due to air pollution and floods and heat waves – both financially and health-wise. Working outdoors for a prolonged period makes them more susceptible to heart and chronic respiratory diseases; shortened life span is one of the health effects of air pollution. More heat-related and infectious diseases are observed during warmer temperatures. During monsoon, many low-lying slums are fully and partially submerged by the floodwater. Year-round unhygienic conditions coupled with stagnant water make people suffer from waterborne diseases, i.e. diarrhoea and typhoid and different kinds of skin diseases among all age groups.
Deeply rooted environmental inequality in Dhaka
Historically, low-income households live in 'park-poor' or 'minimal-green space' areas. Dhaka is no different; Gulshan, Banani, Baridhara and Dhanmodi have better air quality, cooler and more comfortable environment and fewer risks of floods and waterlogging or water stagnation.
Sound pollution is minimal as many roads restrict the entry of public buses and other public transports. These areas receive more rain than other congested and 'less green' areas. Much credit goes to their parks, lakes and open spaces; the residents of these neighbourhoods as well as others from different parts of Dhaka gather there to breathe in the fresh air. Dhanmondi Lake, Rabindro Shorobor and Hatirjheel are some of the famous public spaces. It is difficult to name or identify any lakes or big parks anywhere else in Dhaka city.
There exists stark differences in terms of the quality of environment enjoyed by different economic classes– the richer neighbourhoods enjoy better environmental quality in Dhaka. The middle-income group and the poor urban dwellers don't have similar opportunities to live in a quality environment because of their sub-standard financial capacity.
Fewer and smaller parks compared to the dense population, encroached and poorly maintained water bodies, unplanned and haphazard construction for residential and commercial purposes are some of the common features of these neighbourhoods.
Air quality in other cities in the global south is deplorable as well. In some cities, the condition is so bad that wearing a mask is advised to fight COVID-19 and air pollution, particularly in Mumbai and Delhi. According to WHO, air quality in Delhi is one of the worst among all cities; India has the highest death rate from chronic respiratory disease and asthma in the world. In Pakistan, Lahore chokes on winter smog.
Nature-based solutions – an easy fix
To improve the situation, we need to both reduce fossil energy consumption and bring in nature-based solutions (NbS); a solution that not only benefits the environment but also the economy and society.
It needs to be acknowledged that we take away space from nature when constructing a building; space which was used to purify air, sequester carbon, provide habitat for biodiversity, infiltrate rain-water etc.
Mass tree plantation by roadsides, road-dividers and more rooftop gardens will better air quality in the middle and low-income areas i.e. Mohammadpur, Mirpur, Badda, Rampura, regions with heavy persistence of dust, fumes and smoke almost all day.
Trees sustain themselves by sucking carbon out of the air. It is also a simple and cost-effective way to combat urban heat islands. The European Union has planned to plant three billion trees by 2030 to improve physical and mental wellbeing of its people and boost the resilience of its 27 member states.
As more water bodies and lands are converted into residential and commercial complexes, there is less scope to absorb the water and regenerate itself. Fully paved and soil closed-off cities restrict water penetration into the ground. In a year, on average, it rains on 86 days in Dhaka and almost all of it goes down into the gutter and sewage system. Overflow of rainwater contributes to floods or water-clogging.
Environmental inequality: is still unaddressed?
The situation could have been different if the National Environmental Policy 2018 was followed. The policy talks about adequate urban plantation, greener areas and the conservation, reclamation and environment-friendly use of natural resources in arranging accommodation for city dwellers.
Or, if the National Disaster Management Policy 2015 could be implemented – prioritizing an ecosystem-based approach in conserving the environment, adapting to climate change and alleviating poverty. Apparently, failing to implement city dedicated or focused policies is the main reason behind the cities' degraded environmental condition.
Nature supported and inspired actions are the most available, cost-effective options in the longer term and can function as multifunctional solutions compared to high tech engineered ones. Nature is a time-tested tool too. Now, whether we want to support nature or not depends on us. But, cities need to fix their environmental condition anyhow for its current and future dwellers.
Or else, it will not be possible to keep the promises of SDG 11 – making communities and cities sustainable – without paying attention to the needs of cities' major dwellers – the middle income and the poor.
Nushrat Rahman Chowdhury is a development professional who has worked with various international NGOs including Save the Children International, CARE International and Islamic Relief International in their climate and disaster management departments.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.