Air pollution has been increasing rapidly in Bangladesh causing major health and environmental hazards. Rapid increase in air pollution has been observed in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan since 2010. There are country-specific reasons for air pollution. In Bangladesh, brick kilns and various construction and development activities and faulty vehicular emission have emerged as major sources of outdoor air pollution. Regular exposure to polluted air leads to major health hazards for people including asthma, chronic bronchial diseases, lung cancer, cardiovascular and chronic pulmonary disorders etc.
Bangladesh government has decided to phase out conventional bricks by 2025 from all construction works in order to reduce air pollution. It is estimated by the Department of Environment (DoE) and the World Bank that brick making industries alone account for 56 per cent of air pollution, especially in Dhaka. Various international surveys qualified Dhaka as one of the most polluted cities in the world. Newspaper reports inform that the air quality in Dhaka city was the most polluted on November 25, 2019. The High Court issued an order on November 26, 2019 to the concerned authorities to conduct mobile court drives to shut illegal brick kilns in five districts surrounding Dhaka city within two weeks. The DoE officials have started taking various legal actions against the violators including demolishing some of the illegal brick kilns in different locations of the country. Earlier government agencies had announced different regulatory restrictions on brick manufacturing, setting up brick kilns, use of fuel for brick making etc., but none of these saw fruitful results. Rather the numbers of brick kilns continued to grow in and around the cities and towns and growth centers. As a result, air pollution continues to pose serious threat to human health and environment.
The mushrooming of brick kilns in and around major cities and towns continues unabated. Published reports quoting the Department of Environment suggest that there are 8,033 brick kilns in the country. Other reports suggest that most of the brick kilns fail to comply with relevant regulations, and hence are illegal. Among these 2,513 are reportedly unauthorised (having no Environmental Clearance Certificate, a mandatory requirement) brick kilns and they operate defying legal requirements for brick kiln operations. Also, 2,837 brick kilns were found ignoring the requirement for complying with the use of 'environment friendly' fuel for burning bricks. Experts believe that a good number of brick kiln owners who claim to have implemented environment friendly technology may not have fully followed the technology, as the DoE did not check their status. Some experts believe that majority of the brick kilns in the country operate illegally.
Newspaper reports further suggest that the government plans to use 10 per cent concrete blocks (compressed blocks made of mainly coarse river sand, cement) for its construction projects from this financial year. The share of concrete block use will increase to 20 per cent in 2020-2021, 30 per cent in 2021-2022, 60 per cent in 2022-2023, 80 per cent in 2023-2024 and 100 per cent in 2024-2025. A range of alternatives to conventional bricks (burnt clay bricks) has been developed and commercially made available as environment friendly construction materials suitable for building floors, walls, roofing and road construction works. The concrete block manufacturing units have been advocating for last several years to restrict clay brick use in construction works.
The decision taken by the government for phasing out conventional bricks will have significant impact on phasing out pollution-prone brick kilns. A government Gazette Notification has been issued on November 24, 2019 for using concrete blocks instead of conventional bricks in government projects. It further states that the government would phase out the use of bricks by 2025 and make use of concrete block mandatory for constructing buildings, herringbone bond roads and type-B rural roads. The directive, however, will not be applicable for construction, repairing and modifying of bases and sub-bases of highways.
The Department of Environment (DoE) and House Building Research Institute (HBRI) sources suggest that around 25.0 billion pieces of bricks are produced annually in Bangladesh by approximately 8,000 brick kilns. Most of the brick kilns operate seasonally during the dry seasons of the year. Director HBRI Mohammad Shamim Akhter informs that around 60 million tons of topsoil have been used annually for making the bricks in the country. The loss of topsoil hastens environmental degradation both in the form of air pollution and land fertility loss.
Presently, there are around 150-160 concrete block making industries in the country and they can supply concrete blocks at a cost of Taka 4-9 per (traditional clay bricks are no cheaper materials) unit. The concrete blocks are durable and lighter than clay bricks and hence convenient for transportation and construction works.
If the government remains firm in its decision to gradually phase out conventional bricks to ensure 100 per cent use of eco-friendly green bricks in near future, entrepreneurs are likely to come in a big way to secure supply chain of the commodity at a competitive price.
Mushfiqur Rahman, a mining engineer, writes on energy and environment issues.