Published on The Daily Star on Saturday
The authorities concerned put the blame for being unable to efficiently prevent the kilns from emitting black smoke and violating other environmental rules on local influential and dishonest brick field owners. Despite the existence of laws, many of around 1,100 brickfields across the country are still operating in conventional methods, using wood to burn bricks, damaging arable land by cutting earth and polluting the air by emission, while many other brickfields have been operating just without approval of the authorities concerned including the Department of Environment (DoE).
The issue of brickfields irks many considering its impact on human health, agricultural yields and global warming–at a time when the shooting up urbanisation requires vast quantity of bricks for the construction works, but the hue and cry is rising for emission control worldwide. When the law stipulates that no brickfield can be set up within three kilometres of a residential or a forest area, the restriction is hardly followed. The unauthorised kilns, mainly in the rural areas, are operating by means of muscle power, according to media reports, which several officials at the DoE admit.
The DoE headquarters, however, has no specific data on the number of brickfields currently operating in the country and the extent of pollution — the amount of emitted smoke and impact of its contents on human, and crops, vegetation and land. However, a World Bank study released last year found that in the North Dhaka cluster, brick kilns are the city’s main source of fine particulate pollution, accounting for nearly 40 percent of total emissions during the 5-month operating period.
The regulator says the harmful brick kilns operating around Dhaka city and other places across the country had been set up after securing approvals through muscle power. Though the DoE officials conduct drives against the illegal brickfields flanked by law enforcers, they fear reprisal from those affected owners at other times.
In a recent global survey, Bangladesh ranked 131st among 132 countries in controlling air pollution with regard to its effect on human health. India holds the very last position.
Currently, two magistrates and two senior officials of the DoE are engaged in operations against the violators of environmental laws for the whole country — which seems a mockery of the seriousness the purpose deserves and is one of the major weaknesses in curbing the number of illegal brick kilns and conducting drives against pollution.
Despite the importance of brick-making in emission-control method, the vast majority of kilns use outdated, energy-intensive technologies that are highly polluting. To ease the situation, the authorities concerned are carrying out programmes to promote environment-friendly methods. The initiative has so far been seen as a success since many owners have started converting their brick kilns.
Officials at the DoE said that they stopped renewal of licences for brickfields not converting since October 2010. In an order in the previous month, the regulator had announced that those using conventional Fixed Chimney Kiln (FCK), despite its highly polluting and energy-intensive features, would have to submit report on the conversion by March 2012. Those brickfields would not be allowed to operate under the old method after October this year.
“Though socially unprofitable, FCK is the most commonly implemented technology in Bangladesh. FCK accounts for more than 90 percent of brick kilns in Bangladesh. The low investment cost and the ability to operate on lowlands explain the FCK’s dominance in the brick sector,” observes the WB study.
The DoE is now working on the issue to promote adoption of cleaner technologies. The Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE) project supports a whole range of activities including introduction of energy-efficient brick making technologies and also is demonstrating the viability of alternative building materials.
Such technologies as the Improved Fixed Chimney Kiln (IFCK), Improved Zigzag Kiln (IZigzag), the Vertical Shaft Brick Kiln (VSBK), and the Hybrid Hoffmann Kiln (HHK) are substantially cleaner, consuming less energy and emitting lower levels of pollutants and greenhouse gases, the WB study says. In most of the methods, other than in HHK, coal is used as fuel to burn the bricks.
The DoE officials said they would decide soon, possibly in October, which method is supposed to be in place. The regulator also suggests that the production of hollow block bricks needs to be prescribed, even though it is costlier, as the method contributes nothing harmful to the environment. Bricks are made with silt, cement and stone crush, and later are dried in the sun. These bricks are sound proof and earthquake-friendly.
The government is in process to sign a $50 million deal with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for this conversion of brick-making project. If implemented, the project would assist the ongoing pilot project in deciding on the most-convenient method. The new methods would also help produce 10-times more bricks from a single plant than what they are making in the conventional way.
According to the WB study, FCKs contribute up to 20 percent of the total premature mortality caused by urban air pollution in Dhaka (all causes combined). The Bangladesh Country Environmental Analysis reports that poor air quality in Dhaka contributed to an estimated 3,500 premature deaths in 2002 (World Bank 2006). Emissions of particulate matters from this kiln cluster are responsible for 750 premature deaths annually.
Replacing the brickfield cluster north of Dhaka with VSBKs would reduce current premature mortality by more than 60 percent while replacement by HHKs would reduce it by 45 percent. Adopting the VSBK or HHK can also provide considerable carbon benefits. The FCK provides the highest unit cost of carbon emissions, primarily because of the high coal consumption. By contrast, the low coal consumption makes the VSBK and the HHK the cleanest technologies in terms of CO2 emissions.
Stricter laws needed
According to the existing law regarding burning bricks, the unauthorised kilns must be removed, while licenses of kilns burning wood to be cancelled. Moreover, the violators can be jailed for one year or fined Tk 50,000 or both for similar offences. The officials concerned can also fine those kilns for polluting the air.
But, the present scenario is that the brickfield owners with profit-making tendencies are taking advantage of the lack of adequate manpower of the DoE and are running the faulty kilns unabated across the country.
The DoE with the help of law enforcing agencies should conduct frequent operations to ensure removal of those operating illegally and using wood and coal as fuel. In this effect, the government should immediately go for increasing the DoE’s manpower for the enforcement drives and monitoring.
The findings of the WB study was simply shocking since it shows the brickfield cluster located in northern Dhaka comprises 530 conventional FCKs that produce 2.1 billion bricks annually (14 percent of the country’s brick production). “As the brick sector is a prominent contributor to air pollution in Dhaka, it is important to distinguish its contribution to the city’s air pollution from other sources, including transport and other industries,” the report added.