by Dhrubo Alam, Muntakim Haque, Ananya Roy, Fatiha Polin
The Congestion Conundrum and Public Transport
Dhaka suffers from critical and deteriorated traffic congestion, despite its low level of motorization, largely due to the absolute lack of roads, deficient road network configuration and inefficient traffic management. Existing public transport system, bus transit operations, in particular, is characterized as far short of the desirable mobility needs of the people in terms of reliability, comfort speed, and safety. In Dhaka, buses are generally considered unreliable and time-consuming to reach the destination. It is one of the very few megacities of the world without a proper public transport system.
The present public transport system in Dhaka city consists of conventional bus services (buses and minibusses) and para-transits (e.g. rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, taxis, battery bikes etc.). Lack of effective public transport system and preference of door to door service influence the augmentation of private cars and other modal shiftings. Though railway was very popular and still is a relatively safer and cheaper transport system in the context of Bangladesh, the absence of proper initiatives and investment in the urban corridor, it could not play the expected role in Dhaka’s public transport system. Moreover, rail tracks run through the Central Business Districts (CBD) and congested areas of the city with lots of level crossing which results in enormous congestion.
All the given factors thus created a situation where cars and motorcycles are becoming increasingly necessary for the middle class, to get around in the metropolitan Dhaka, further congesting the roads and worsening air pollution, noise, and safety problems. The number of the registered motorized vehicle stands at 708,197 in June 2012 increasing from 303,215 in 2003 (an amount that has more than doubled in the last nine years). More than 40% of all registered vehicles are in Dhaka (total 1,751,834 in Bangladesh).
The alarming trend which can be observed is that, while the total number of buses remain almost same in this nine-year period, private vehicles, particularly, number of cars and motorcycles more than doubled. Though the number of buses and minibusses has grown at a very insignificant rate, the demand for public transport services has increased noticeably. On the contrary, motorcycles, cars, and jeeps/ station wagons constitute around 42%, 25% and 10% (77% in total) of all motorized vehicles respectively.
To improve the current situation and reorganize the existing traffic system methodically, the government prepared the Strategic Transport Plan (STP) for Dhaka (2005); which has been recently revised (it has now become RSTP) (2015). It recommended a package of comprehensive programs for the development of transport infrastructure over 20 year period. This strategy includes various types of development agendas, such as three Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) (Metrorail) routes, more than 50 highway projects, expressways, flyovers etc.
Unfortunately, the implementation of the components of STP or RSTP does not reflect the intention to mitigate transport problems of the masses. Ignoring the needs of non-motorized travelers, recent policies at all government levels have focused on trying to lessen the travel time for the motorized elite of the city by putting preference on the constructions of numerous grade-separated flyovers, overpasses, and interchanges (e.g. Jatrabari-Gulistan flyover, Kuril interchange, Banani overpass etc.).
The motorization and development come at a price of depleting the transportation equity of a city. For example, from an environmental and equity perspective, major concerns exist regarding the rapid increase of motorized two-wheelers. Some have even characterized the motorcycle as likely the “most challenging” transport problem that Asia will face in the next decade. The rapid private motorization and current prevalence of NMTs (Non-Motorized Traffic, mostly rickshaws) is not a sustainable solution although they may help to increase mobility in short term. Authority attempts have been successful in banning NMTs from some parts of the city. Like other developing cities around the world, NMTs will be restricted in near future for Dhaka too. Hence, for transportation equity and accessibility, not only public transit is necessary but also Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) (e.g. subway, BRT, LRT etc.) are required and we hope that the ongoing projects of MRT and BRT will help to ease the present horrendous situation.
Seeing Through the Smog: Air Pollution at an All-Time High
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and eighth largest city in the world in terms of population (2013), has been infamous for being heavily polluted. It was termed as the most polluted city when lead (Pb) in the air was reported higher than in the atmosphere of any other place of the world (1997). Pollution from traffic and brick kilns has been identified as two of the most significant of all the factors in the studies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in order to improve the severe situation, the authorities took some decisions (e.g. banning two-stroke engines, introducing Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) etc.). But, other than numerous sporadic studies and projects, there has been little systematic research or successful project implementation on air pollution of the city. Unfortunately, unless the situation becomes extremely hazardous or almost uninhabitable, the trend for the authorities is to adopt the ‘Do nothing’ approach.
The main culprits for air pollution are large numbers of high polluting vehicles, impure fuel, inefficient land use, overall poor traffic management, and industries (especially brick kilns). The most important pollutants are identified as Carbon monoxide (CO), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), lead (Pb), Nitrogen oxides (NOx), Ozone (O3), Hydrocarbons (HC), Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and last but not the least; Particulate Matter (PM) with an aerodynamic diameter of less than or equal to 10µm (PM10 and PM2.5). Observations show that the concentration of SO2, O3, CO, and NOx go up in dry season significantly. The same has been also true for PM2.5 and PM10.
The estimated PM emissions from different modes indicated that around 54% emission contribution is from bus/minibus, followed by truck and tanker (26%). The black spot areas for PM were located in the intercity routes and the major bus terminals. The bus terminals (Gabtoli and Sayedabad) showed average estimated values above 110 μg/m3 of PM. Locations with highest concentrations of PM are Sheraton, Farmgate, Sonargaon, Mohakhali-Gulshan intersection and Banglamotor.
When a team of researchers performed field studies in the 90s, to measure ambient NO2 concentration in 51 street locations, one residential area and four personal exposures; 35 of them are identified as the black spots. Most polluted locations of NOx were Syedabad bus stand, Sheraton hotel roundabout, Sonargaon hotel roundabout, Farmgate intersection and Moghbazar intersection. The calculation of NOx indicated that bus and minibus (diesel operated) and motor car have the significant contribution of NOx (30%), followed by heavy-duty vehicles (truck and tanker) (28%). The situation got much worse now after 20 years, as there have been no visible steps to improve the situation.
Researchers found that NOx and SOx emissions from transportation systems in national pollution averaged 34% and 47%, respectively. In case of SO2 in Dhaka, the contribution is mainly coming from high sulfur content in the diesel fuel. It was estimated that buses powered by diesel fuel contribute 58% SO2 emission followed by trucks and tankers 34%.
Even in the late 1980s, the instantaneous average concentration of CO exceeded the then international standard of 10 ppm. It is estimated that auto-rickshaws and cars are the major contributors (35%), followed by motorcycles (24%). The five locations severely polluted by CO were Moghbazar, Kakrail, Bijoynagar, Mohakhali rail crossing adjacent road, and Mohakhali (Amtali). In addition, the 5 locations polluted by HC were Moghbazar, Kakrail, Bijoynagar, Mohakhali rail crossing adjacent road, and Sonargaon hotel roundabout.
At present, air pollution in metropolitan Dhaka has been increasing at a steady rate for more than three decades. Annual average increases of 6.5% in NOx, 5.8% in HC, 5.9% in CO, 5.6% in PM and 6% in SOx emissions were observed from 1981 to 1996. These rates have certainly not gone down, as the number of motorized vehicles is rapidly increasing. This results in chronic congestions almost at every intersection, resulting in more and more emissions.
It is proven that the impacts of policy decisions (e.g. banning of two-stroke engines and leaded gasoline, introduction on CNG etc.) can have far-reaching results in a positive way. The ever-increasing amount of PM2.5 and PM10 are getting out of the hand, and making the city reportedly one of the most polluted in the world. If we do not take proper effective measures to mitigate the problem now, there will be grave consequences.
The Draining Factor: When Sewage is Stagnant
In almost all cases, settlements were located by a water source for water supply, irrigation and of course sanitation. Sanitation, from the beginning of civilization, has been one of the key factors in ensuring the survival of a large number of people living in permanent settlements. Being as fundamental as it is, this quite self-evidently has not changed and is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
This begs the question, how would one effectively deal with all the waste produced by the near to 17 million residents of Dhaka? According to a report from the World Health Organisation, a lot more than what is currently being done. The report concludes that nearly two-thirds of the households of Dhaka are at risk of E. coli contamination in water and more than a fifth are at very high risk of E. coli infections. Of course, the citizens are vigilant, boiling the water that they consume as they rightly don’t trust it. However, doing this only treats the symptoms of an inadequate system and not the underlying cause.
Dhaka has three main methods of dealing with its sewage; septic tanks, sewage treatment plant and leaving it completely untreated. Septic tanks are required by regulation of Dhaka’s building code. However, it is not always implemented, as homeowners often opt to cut costs and older buildings that don’t already have septic tanks are not inspected to bring them up to code. Septic tank is an on-spot sewage treatment method and it processes the sewage to an acceptable degree, followed by the routine collection and disposal of the remaining sludge by the local and city authorities. How is it dealt with? Well, there are no sewage sludge treatment plants in Dhaka to correctly process it. Therefore, they end up in landfills and given the amount of soil that is eroded into water bodies and how all the hydrological systems in Dhaka are connected, ultimately the rotting bacteria infested sludge leeches into the water and contaminates it. Unfortunately, this is not the pipeline end of the matter.
One of the biggest issues plaguing Dhaka, especially during monsoon season, is the constant flash-flooding and waterlogging. The reason it has become so frequent and unmanageable is the loss of water bodies which would hold the water during the monsoon season and allow Dhaka’s citizens to get on with their lives. Water bodies have in the past been encroached and these losses often echo in their names, and it’s still going on. In these places where all the surplus rainwater was supposed to go now stand structures like the infamous BGMEA building in Kawran Bazar, other lesser known constructions that just popped up before anyone even noticed an entire residential area like Bashundhara and Purbachal with new ones underway. How were these operations of various scales pulled off? The larger residential areas do this with systematic corruption, forced land acquisition followed by filling as much of the submerged area as possible with sand. Smaller scale encroachment is masterminded in plain sight but somehow goes unnoticed. They dump enough garbage to create a firm foothold in the water, then they wall the area away from sight, and then they start building their structures. This is a maliciously planned practice that feeds the business model of land grabbing, with little regard shown to the inconvenience of all the inhabitants of the area and to the law. The system has come full circle, the sewage that is not properly treated is also improperly dumped and thus leeches into the water causing water to be contaminated, and then the filled up water bodies cannot hold the rainwater, so it has nowhere to go and then when the water comes, it overflows and that water goes everywhere. Dhaka is living in its own filth, the only action we’ve managed to undertake is to put some time between us producing the waste and it ends up everywhere.
The sewage treatment plant in Pagla deals with about a fifth of the total sewage produced by the inhabitants of Dhaka. It uses a network of sewers to collect the sewage and lagoons for anaerobic treatment of the sewage. The network theoretically extends all over Dhaka. However, most areas don’t have a household level reach. With pipelines under major roadways merely surrounding these areas and having no real connection to the residences. The sludge is then dried and dumped into specific areas within and outside the plant. However, certain reports suggest that even the dried and treated effluent have too much heavy metal content to be deemed safe from contaminating water supplies.
Well, there might be some light at the end of this tunnel. There are plans that have been approved that address most of these issues. There is an expansion proposal of sewage treatment plants starting with the updating of Pagla to higher standards. The plan extends to the creation of three additional treatment plants that will connect to respective zones to ensure all of Dhaka has sanitary sewage treatment. Encroachment and other illegal activities are not covered in this plan, but it’s a scheme to improve our sanitation standards, not a magic wand. The plan is expected to be implemented by 2035 and is estimated to cost a billion dollars. It has been a long time coming but the citizens of Dhaka can finally look forward to better sanitation standards for their city.
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