Monday, 8 August, 2022

Dhaka’s Liveability: A Burning Question

Shaikh Rezanul Haque (Manik)

Dhaka’s Liveability: A Burning Question
Shaikh Rezanul Haque (Manik)

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has been experiencing an unprecedented growth for the last fifty years compared to other peer capital cities in the South Asian region, especially in terms population. Dhaka alone accounts for almost forty percent of the country’s total urban population and makes up one third of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Bangladesh. But when it comes to human habitation or liveability, it ranks the thirst worst city in the world, according to several global reports.

Dhaka’s air is more toxic than ever before, drinking water in many areas unsafe, traffic congestion a daily nightmare, noise pollution unprecedented and population density very high – enough to make the capital city uninhabitable. An ordinary citizen like me certainly feels embarrassed with the fact that Dhaka is one of the most unliveable cities and the most polluted one in the world. The city is seen as a frenzied economic engine with its skyline thrusting up aggressively and sprawling markets and shopping malls bustling with commercial activities. But Dhaka with an estimated population of over 15 millions lags far behind in the crucial characteristics essential for the quality of life.

The 2021 World Air Quality Report by IQ Air ranks Dhaka as the second most polluted city while Bangladesh being one of the most polluted countries in the world. The average PM2.5 concentration in the city is 78.1 micrograms per cubic metre, which is 15 times higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Particulate matter (PM) is the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in the air, many of which are hazardous.

Then comes the issue of drinking water, which is far from safe. Water generated both from surface and ground water is contaminated with toxic metals, coliform bacteria and other organic and inorganic pollutants. A 2019 survey report by the Local Government and Rural Development (LGRD) Ministry found that the water supplied by WASA’s 10 MODS zones and two out of its four source points was contaminated with harmful bacteria. The same year, Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) admitted that its water supplied to 57 areas was polluted because of age old and faulty pipes. Although the situation improved slightly over the past few years, currently the capital is witnessing an outbreak of cholera which is to an extent blamed on the water supply system. Dhaka is also experiencing fast depletion of ground water table and the pollution in the surface water sources originating mainly from the rivers around the city.

As far sound pollution is concerned, it is like an invisible killer wreaking havoc on the Dhaka city dwellers. The latest report of the United Nation’s Environmental Programmes found the city as one of the noisiest in the world with its noise level standing twice the tolerable standard. The report revealed that the average noise frequency in Dhaka stood at 119 decibels (dB) – the highest among 61 mega cities of the world. According to WHO guidelines, the permissible noise is 55 dB for outdoor residential areas and 70 dB for commercial areas and where there is traffic congestion. Sound pollution from traffic, construction sites and loudspeakers poses serious health hazard since continuous exposure to high level of noise causes hearing loss and cardiac problems.

What makes the city dwellers suffer more days in day out is the hazardous traffic congestion on the roads and streets. The traffic jams at certain hours are quite common in megacities across the world but what the commuters face the sheer gridlock and long tailback in Dhaka everyday is a stark manifestation of chaos and mismanagement. They invariably get stuck in long tailback for minutes and even for hours. According to the World Bank Traffic Index 2020, Dhaka has been placed 10th in terms of poor traffic management amongst 228 cities. The major factors behind this chaotic condition are acute shortage of roads and inefficient traffic management. There is little or no public transport system here meant to address the desirable mobility of the commuters attended with reliability, safety and comfort. To our utter wonderment, the speed of Dhaka’s vehicles irrespective of public and private now stands at close to 6km per hour, which is similar to the walking speed of an individual. By no stretch of the imagination can we assume that the speed of the vehicular movement of a capital city of an emerging country like ours stands so sluggish which perhaps matches no other capital city across the world. It is estimated that a staggering TK. 30,000 crore is lost in Bangladesh every year because of its capital city Dhaka’s massive traffic congestion.

The list of problem does not end here. Water logging and precarious drainage system pose a perennial problem for the city dwellers. Because of unplanned urbanisation, gradual but unbridled encroachment of wetland and water bodies and indiscriminate dumping of solid and liquid waste, a couple of hours rainfall inundate most of the roads of Dhaka.

The shortage of parks, playgrounds and green space has turned this city into concrete mass with the result that weather is getting hotter with the passing of couple of years. The way the city is running, it seems nobody is there to take care of things. The whole Dhaka city appears to have been a mess and there is no light at end of the tunnel. There are a number of laws regarding the governance of the city but their lax enforcement makes those rules and regulations inefficacious.

Given this plight what the government needs to do on an urgent basis is to go for planned urbanization, highlighting sustainable urban environment. It is still possible to make this city liveable. It will not take more than two or three years to reduce air and noise pollution by around 60 percent. Introducing a safe and speedy public transport system, enforcing traffic laws strictly, increasing investment in the public transport sector, discouraging the use of personal vehicle, reintroducing waterways and preserving the remaining water bodies and wetland in and around Dhaka could be some steps that merit consideration. Another crucial task that needs to be done immediately is the decentralization of authority both in terms administration and trade and commerce and setting up satellite townships around Dhaka. Over and above, coordinated efforts among the executing agencies or the authorities concerned coupled with a strong political will are very much indispensible to make this city habitable.


The writer is a retired Deputy General Manager, BSCIC