Brick kilns back in business, rampant topsoil burning continues

Rashad Ahamad | Published at 10:54pm on January 09, 2020


Brick kilns on the bank of River Dhaleshwari heavily pollute the environment of the river and neighbouring villages in Munshiganj. The photo has been taken recently. — Sourav Lasker

Countless brick kilns are back in operation. Many of the illegal brick kilns demolished during the recent drives have resumed operation posing serious environmental hazards.

The Department of Environment has demolished 122 clay brick kilns around Dhaka alone and fined Tk 4.13 crore since November 2019 following a High Court order of shutting down the polluting kilns to check air pollution, said DoE enforcement director Begum Rubina Ferdousi on Sunday.

Local people said that the DoE mobile courts had demolished five to 35 per cent of the kilns, though the owners started operating again within days and continued polluting the environment while a number of kilns using the same polluting technology were left untouched in the same areas.

Akbar Hossain, a resident of Vararia in Dhamrai on the outskirts of the capital, said that DoE mobile courts partially demolished seven brickfields in their area on December 30, including King Bricks, 7 Star Bricks, JBC Bricks, Alal Bricks and Irin Bricks.

‘All these kilns came into operation again within days,’ he said.

Irin Bricks owner and also Somhag union parishad chairman Azhar Ali said that the brick kiln owners had already invested several crores of taka each ahead of the season.

‘I myself have spent several crores from different sources for the season, how can I shut the unit without doing business?’ he asked.

Residents of Genda in Savar said that the DoE had partially demolished five brick kilns — TVC Bricks, MS Bricks, Chan Miah Bricks, Madhumoti Bricks and KSB bricks — on December 5 and fined Tk 23 lakhs.

But the kilns started operating again as the DoE demolished only 5 per cent of the structure, at the most.

When asked, Rubina Ferdousi said that they could not completely demolish the structures due to lack of logistic support.

‘We have no technology to demolish high-rise kiln chimneys, taking them down is very risky,’ she said.

She further said that the DoE was informed of the situation but for inadequate support from law-enforcement and fire-service agencies they could not also carry out monitoring activities.

‘We will again conduct drives against the errant kilns and punish the owners,’ she said.

DoE officials said that there were some 8,500 brick-manufacturing units, all of them emitting carbon and burning fertile topsoil, across the country in 2014 when the ‘Brick Manufacturing and Brick Kiln Establishment (Control) Act 2013’ was enacted.

‘Thirty per cent of the 8,500 brick kilns are now illegal after the act was amended in 2019,’ said DoE’s Air Quality Control Wing director Ziaul Haque.

The DoE, he went on, now aims to shut down those brick kilns which are located in restricted areas, including residential, reserved and commercial areas and agricultural and forest lands, and use old technologies in order to prevent air pollution.

Greens are urging the government for long to use hollow blocks instead of conventional bricks to save fertile topsoil and conserve environment.

They estimated that roughly 25 billion pieces of conventional clay bricks were manufactured in the country every year by damaging 100 million tonnes of topsoil which emit 20 million tonnes carbon dioxide annually.

They demanded government’s pragmatic action against the brick kilns not only for air pollution but also for topsoil burning.

They asked the government to promote alternatives to bricks.

DoE said that they could not take tougher actions as alternative sand-cement block was not available while the few initiatives that have so far been taken could not win the public’s trust.

Hollow block or sand cement entrepreneurs said that until the government make use of hollow block mandatory first in government construction and renovation and then at public level, they will not be used.

Green campaigners contradicted the government statistics on the total number of brick-making units in the country, alleging that a huge number of illegal brick kilns continued operation by ‘satisfying’ the agencies.

They said that topsoil-burning brick units should be banned not only for maintaining good air quality but also because they were pushing the country toward food insecurity by destroying topsoil.

There are five types of brick kilns in Bangladesh, namely fixed chimney kiln, zig zag kiln, Hybrid Hoffman kiln, vertical shaft kiln and tunnel kiln.

The DoE conducts demolition drives against fixed chimney kilns and partial zig zag kilns with restriction on areas but allows others to operate, officials said.

But, environmentalists said, all these types of kilns pollute air at varying degrees and they also pose serious danger for the use of topsoil of crop land.

They expressed deep concern over burning of topsoil that contributed to food insecurity for Bangladesh, world’s 8th-most populous country with nearly 160 million people in 147,570 sq km.

Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said that Bangladesh should not ban topsoil-burning technologies but should ban burning of topsoil in brick kilns.

Reports said that several hundred brick kilns around the capital were responsible for 82 per cent of Dhaka’s air pollution turning it into the top-ranked unliveable city on earth.

According to many air quality indexes, Dhaka, a city of some 17 million people, ranked as the worst city in the world in terms of air quality.

Considering the situation, the High Court on November 26 ordered the authorities concerned to shut down the illegal brick kilns around Dhaka.

On the DoE air quality index, Dhaka on December 26 scored 393 points, Narayanganj 456 and Gazipur 425.

The DoE AQI indicated that the air quality in the cities was extremely unhealthy.

Physicians said that some of the respiratory diseases caused due to the emissions from brick kilns were lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, cough, sputum, wheezing and dyspnoea.

Brick kiln owners complained that government officials compelled them to change brick-burning technologies over the last few decades as they failed to select a ‘perfect’ one.

‘We are paying for the failure of the officials,’ said Mizanur Rahman Babul, president of the Bangladesh Brick Manufacturing Owners Association.

He protested against the sudden closure of brickfields during the peak season and demanded a long-term sustainable policy decision.

Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh entrepreneurs said that they were using bricks as their customers couldn’t trust blocks when quality blocks were not available in the market.

Executive director of Centre for Housing and Building Research and former director general of Housing and Building Research Institute Mohammad Abu Sadeque said that it was high time to stop the use of soil-made bricks and to promote sand-soil blocks in construction.

He said that before that decision should be taken the government needed to make such blocks available at reasonable prices.

He said that over 1,000 block manufacturing factories including the smalls were established across the country but their production was very low.

Neither the government nor the public were using blocks and the concerned agency was not engaged in developing block technology.

He said that 25 years back block was introduced in Bangladesh but for the lack of government support it failed to become popular in the market though block was cheap and more suitable for modern construction than brick.

Housing and Building Research Institute senior research officer (building material) Ahsan Habib said that they were working to develop more formulas for making blocks using local sands.

‘But we are yet to test the qualities of all locally available sands for the purpose though we have the desire to do so,’ he told New Age.

He added that many entrepreneurs from different districts came up with samples of sands collected from different areas and the HBRI was advising them on the best manufacturing formula.

On November 24, 2019, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change has published a circular asking concerned government agencies to ensure mandatory use of block in all types of government construction and renovation activities.

The Department of Environment director for air quality management wing Md Ziaul Haque said that after making mandatory use of block in government construction and renovation, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change was going to publish another circular soon making block use mandatory in private construction work.

According to the circular, government will use 10 per cent block in its construction and renovation in 2019-20 fiscal year, 20 per cent in 2020-21, 30 per cent in 2021-22, 60 per cent in 2022-23, 80 per cent in 2023-24 and 100 per cent in 2014-25.

DoE officials said that many countries have already put a ban on the use of fertile topsoil for brick manufacturing while Asian countries like India, China and Vietnam are lagging behind.

Principal architect of Assoconsult Ltd and former president of Bangladesh Institute of Architect Mubasshar Hussain said that block was good economically as well as in scale of sustainability in building construction.

‘Block is lighter than brick so block-made building can take relatively high load,’ he said.

But he said quality of block was not ensured yet as the government was still indifferent about the introduction of such an innovative building materials.

HBRI officials said that they were working for the development of different formulas for different use of block according to the strengths.

They said that use of locally available raw materials was their priority to ensure availability across the country.