Could people power drive Bangladeshi clean environment movement?

Pollution, of both air and water are huge problems for many urban environments in Bangladesh.

In 2009 it was estimated by an Air Quality Management Project (AQMP) that poor air quality in Dhaka was contributing to 15,000 premature deaths, as well as millions of cases of pulmonary, respiratory and neurological illnesses.

Another report in the same year labelled the Buriganga River, running through the Capital city Dhaka, as the most polluted river in the country.

While Bangladesh has a number of environmental law and regulations in place – headed up by the Department of Environment – recent news reports coming from the country show little improvement since 2009.

Local journalist Probir Kumar Sarker has sent us the following report looking at what can be done on the ground by those most affected by pollution to help drive a clean environmental movement in the country.

In 2009, the Buriganga River was labelled the most polluted river in the country (© John Pavelka/Creative Commons)

When the government is not capable enough or unable to monitor and stop the ongoing violations of environmental laws, it is the people who can contribute.

They can assist the regulator by informing the officials of any shocking environmental degradation that is posing severe threat to their surroundings, attending monthly public hearings arranged by the government and also by following the rules properly as sensible citizens and raising awareness among others to stand against pollution.

The current scenario is at a grave stage in the fields of air pollution, caused by emissions of smoke mainly from vehicles, brick kilns and industries, and dust; contamination of flowing waters (river, canal etc) and open water (non-flowing) reservoirs (ponds, haors, baors etc.) because of industries discharging untreated waste water and filling up of waterbodies; dumping of solid waste at open places; soil pollution due to excessive use of pesticides, deforestation and brick kilns; and noise pollution.

The claims over the presence of a poor status of the country’s environment can easily be established by the recent-day news reports about violation of the existing environmental laws — no matter how effective the monitoring and enforcement operations are — in almost every social and industrial atmosphere across the country.

Calls for action

The special reports being published on the newspapers and television channels and calls from green groups to take stern action against the culprits are in someway heeded and sometimes immediate action is taken — given that the DoE suffers manpower shortage both in the fields of monitoring and enforcement of rules while the offenders try to avoid taking the precautionary measures “merely to save money”.

But in many cases, those calls are just gone by as the constraint to the environmental governance of the government is the lack of its capacity in terms of physical facilities, technical expertise and financial resources.

In a global survey report published last month, Bangladesh ranked second from last among 132 countries in terms of the air pollution situation, portraying that the air quality in the country is much below standard.

The situation has not turned so bad in a day or two. It is the result of the reluctance of the government to recruit adequate numbers of workforce in the highly sensitive regulatory body — Department of Environment (DoE) — to curb environmental offences.

Moreover, it also gives an impression of poor monitoring and command by the officials concerned since awareness among the majority of people is still to be created.

Old and dirty vehicles are a major problem in urban areas in Bangladesh (© Ahron-de-Leeuw/Creative Commons)

Despite the failure to ensure clean air, there have been several programmes carried out by the authorities to check it. We hail the authorities for their relentless efforts and hard work in this end.

The country’s biggest concern

Apparently, air pollution is seemed to have been the most concerning issue for the country now.

When the extent of air pollution is rising in the urban areas due to dense population, dust in the streets and construction sites, higher number of fuel oil-run and unfit motor vehicles, industries and brickfields, it is slowly approaching towards the suburban and rural areas too with the establishments of brickfields and other industries.

A policy support has to be there from the government side to decide how many approvals to industries would be issued, in what manner and where — considering the ability of the regulator in overseeing those after coming into operation.

Polluted air containing excessive carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter has recently raised much concern because of its short- and long-term impact on the people’s health and mortality, as well as the environment and global warming–precisely on the crops and trees.

Contaminated air irritates eyes, throats and lungs, and thus leads to different breathing problems — coughing, asthma, headaches, and nausea; visibility problems; and heart complications.

Some chronic health effects include decreased lung capacity and lung cancer resulting from long-term exposure to toxic air pollutants.

In addition, it is to be noted that people, mainly those who are poor, living in or near industrial areas and highways are the most vulnerable to air pollution. Among them, the infants and the pregnant women are exposed to such pollution.

The waste problem

Meanwhile, dumping of waste is still a major issue in Dhaka as well as other parts of the country since the matter is yet to be fully-settled.

Industries and Brick Kilns are slowly moving into more rural parts of the country (© Abeeeer/Creative Commons)

A major portion of the everyday rubbish is still thrown away at open places other than at the designated dustbins, whereas the garbage, which the authorities takes away for dumping at a far place from localities, is not regularly been cleaned.

Thus, the discharging places become threats to the people living around and passing by since these result in low weight births and triggers health hazards.

Open waste often becomes a major breeding ground for the mosquitoes and other insects that carry germs and transmits them to humans and other living beings.

Decomposition of waste produces huge carbon dioxide that triggers global warming.

Besides raising people’s awareness over not disposing garbage here and there, recycling business can here play a vital role by reusing the valuable components including polythene, plastic goods, glass, iron, hospital, medical and organic waste.

But, when the mega city and many others are developing and population is increasing, the lack of a good number of recycling businesses has put the waste management issue still unaddressed at a large level.

According to the minister concerned, the authorities concerned are able to manage only half of the waste produced. Other than the city corporation cars, the street urchins collect recyclable objects from these places and sell those to recyclers.

Industry is a huge source of water pollution, as it produces pollutants that are extremely harmful to people and the environment.

Across the country, dying and washing plants, pulp and paper, fertiliser and petroleum refineries/industries, and others are diluting the waters unabated, even though they are supposed to use water treatment plants as per environment laws and special directives of the High Court.

Water pollution

Moreover, people at many parts of the country these days dump garbage on the banks of water bodies or flowing rivers or canal waters and also in drains resulting in contamination of the waters and clogging of the drains.

These types of treatments gradually harm the water quality and leave the poor people, dependent on the flowing water, in threats of waterborne diseases.

While some recycling takes place in the country, such businesses are still small in number (© Marufish/Creative Commons)

Moreover, polluted water stops natural living of fishes and other water creatures and helps create perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes.

Many industrial facilities use freshwater to carry away waste from the plant and into rivers, lakes and oceans.

Pollutants from industrial sources include asbestos fibres, which can be inhaled and cause illnesses such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, intestinal cancer and liver cancer; lead, a metallic element and a non-biodegradable substance which is so hard to clean up once the environment is contaminated; mercury, another metallic element and a poison.

Nitrates and phosphates come from increased use of fertilisers and are behind a dense growth of plant life; the decomposition of the plants depletes the supply of oxygen, leading to the death of animal life.

Sulphur is another non-metallic substance that is harmful for marine life. Oils do not dissolve in water and instead form a thick layer on the water surface.

This can stop marine plants receiving enough light for photosynthesis. It is also harmful for fish and marine birds.

Petrochemicals are formed from gas or petrol and can be toxic to marine life.

Most recently, the ship breaking and shipbuilding sectors have become an emerging industry in Bangladesh and have also got the government’s helpful assistance to grow up more.

But here lies the concern about the upcoming future of this industry — whether it would be possible to regulate the yards so that they check pollution of the rivers and the Bay while working.

Noise Pollution

Noise pollution is another disturbing thing that only harms people and living beings not the environment.

Although the noise pollution level in the major urban centres of Bangladesh exceeds the legal standards, the issue hardly gets attention of the authorities concerned and in pollution discussions.

This is seen mainly in the urban areas due to vehicle congestion, generators, and construction sites crushing stones and bricks, and noise in industries.

People on the streets, poor people mainly children, the elderly and women living in industrial and dense areas are the most affected by such pollution.

Studies show that there are direct links between noise and health. Problems related to noise include stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.

Probir Kumar Sarker believes community action could play a huge role in driving a clean environment moving in the country (© Marufish/Creative Commons)

Noise Induced Hearing Loss is the most common and often discussed health effect, but research has shown that exposure to constant or high levels of noise can cause countless adverse health affects.

Community action

Most of the businesses operating in the country take the chance of dodging environmental rules eyeing larger profits.

And since the authorities’ efforts to eliminate or refrain these dishonest businesses and industries from polluting further are meagre, given their manpower and other shortcomings, the people should come forward now individually –only if they want to solve the issues in the shortest possible time with the view to make the environment, our living place, the Earth livable for us and for the next generation.

Mass people should use the available tools to expedite the anti-pollution movements to press home in taking stern action against the major polluters.

Regardless of urban or rural areas, the people, in cooperation with the government’s officials concerned, may constitute forums comprising citizens from different spectra.

These organisations may play a key role in making others aware through door-to-door campaigns to check different forms of pollution caused by individuals, especially use of polythene, disposing waste at open places and water bodies, checking dust at construction sites, maintenance of private cars and other fuel oil-driven vehicles, and use of hydraulic horns.

They may also arrange street campaigns, discussions and seminars to bring the critical issues afore the society and media as well as the government. The existing social forums can also emphasise on the environmental issues.

The DoE, only responsible for the environmental management in the country, organises a public hearing chaired by its director general on the second Thursday of every month at its Agargaon office.

It is arranged to hear and note the complaints from the people who are directly or indirectly affected or those who want to bring an issue into light for an immediate solution.

Meanwhile, the people may also submit their comments or enquiry on the DoE’s website. The DoE officials can also be reached through phone or could be written about any environmental issues.

Through such a concerted move by the people and the government in parallel, a cleaner and better country could be built in the near future.

The government in this regard can play the leading role by being proactive in launching awareness campaigns among people across the country and increasing its manpower to be strong-hand against the culprits who are influential and cares a little about the environment.

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