Dhaka, Bangladesh — 18,000,000 people and counting…

Dhaka, Bangladesh just doesn’t seem to stop growing. The city cannot keep up with the rapid influx of people and, therefore, faces challenges regarding air pollution, flooding, and infrastructure.

In Dhaka, over 18 million people live within just 115 square miles.

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With more than 150,000 people per square mile, Dhaka is nearly 75 percent more dense than Hong Kong. New York, a familiar city for many Americans, does not even hit 1/20th of the population density of Dhaka. Worldwide, no megacity comes close to Dhaka’s astonishing population density.

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Statistics on some specific neighborhood densities in Dhaka are even more staggering. Some slums have population densities reaching 1000 people per acre. To put that in perspective, my family of four lives on more than one acre.

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Between 2000 and 2010, the urbanization of Bangladesh was faster than South Asia as a whole. The population of urban Bangladesh increased by 1.69% per year.

With the seemingly perpetual influx of people, Dhaka faces immense struggles with infrastructure, land, housing and the environment. In 2015, Dhaka ranked 139/140 on the livability index of the Economist Intelligence Unit.  Before that, in 2012, the city ranked 140/140. The city just seems too congested to do anything productive.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Livability Survey

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Even though Dhaka is the densest urban area in the world, it remains one of the least economically productive, and none of its problems are going away.

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An increasingly threatening result of Dhaka’s urbanization is air pollution. According to a recent survey, Bangladesh ranks 131st out of 132 countries in controlling air pollution and its effects on human health.

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PM2.5 are tiny particles in the atmosphere that can easily get into the lungs of humans and cause serious and permanent health problems. The readings for PM2.5 are often used in air quality and environmental reports. This report shows the extreme concentration of these dangerous particles in Bangladesh’s air.

The air in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is easily classified as some of the dirtiest on the planet. By reducing the air pollution in Dhaka considerably, 3,500 lives could be saved and 230 million cases of respiratory diseases could be avoided every year. Economically, this would save about $500 million US dollars per year in health care costs.

Furthermore, Dhaka is unfortunately located within extensive wetlands and is surrounded by some of the greatest rivers in the world.

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The lowest parts of the city are only five feet above sea level, which welcomes serious flooding. The risk for flooding continues to grow as sea levels rise globally. On top of that, as the urban area of Dhaka expands, the city is forced to build within these flood zones.

The geography of rivers around Dhaka has forced the city into a north-south orientation. The urban area of Dhaka measures three to seven miles from east to west and about 30 miles from north to south. A circular development that is common for an inland urban area is made impossible by rivers.

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The growing demand for infrastructure to serve the ballooning population along with the poor geography of Dhaka creates quite the dilemma. On top of that, the government in Bangladesh does not have access to many resources for new infrastructure or for maintaining existing infrastructure. The infrastructure is notoriously under and unequally developed. This has negatively affected the economic development of Bangladesh. Due to the geographic barriers, crucial urban expansion will be very expensive. As more and more people flee to urban areas from rural areas, the problems associated with high densities and slums will make expansion increasingly difficult.

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In 1970, before East Pakistan separated from Pakistan and became Bangladesh the urban population was just 1.3 million. By 2025, the UN predicts Dhaka will reach a population of 23 million. In the meantime, Dhaka continues to grow at a mind-boggling pace.

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