The warning that the brick kilns spread out mostly on agricultural lands are a serious threat to the livelihood of millions has, of late, begun to be visible in some parts of the country. Newspaper reports say hundreds of acres of paddy fields and fruit orchards in Naogaon have turned infertile because of caustic gas emissions from nearby brick kilns. Last year as well as this year, farmers are facing serious crop damage, particularly the boro crop. No wonder, those associated with construction of brick kilns right in the middle of farmlands are in a total denial mood that such harm could be caused by the emissions. It is, however, yet to be known whether the authorities, department of environment being one, have taken cognizance of the alleged harm done to crops.
Over the past two decades or so, emergence of brick fields almost all over the country has been a menace on many counts. According to a UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) estimate, Bangladesh produces some 8.66 billion bricks a year at a value of $450 million -- almost 1.0 per cent of the country's GDP. Inside the brick-making plants workers face harsh conditions as they toil to keep pace with the country's breakneck construction boom.
While working condition is one aspect, there are more to brick-making that should draw immediate attention of all concerned. One of the shocking realities that has lately emerged is that brick fields are getting increasingly invasive in grabbing the country's less than sufficient arable lands, jeopardising agriculture as a sustaining means of feeding the millions. More dangerous is the threat that comes in terms of affecting neighbouring lands under cultivation because of the heat, caustic smoke and dust that the brick making plants generate. The ever-increasing number of brick fields is a major source of health hazard and pollution in a country where environmental safeguards are all but nonexistent.
Another reality that should be kept in mind is that brick-making provides a better income than agriculture or other jobs in rural Bangladesh. Presently, brick making industry employs around one million rural work force. This goes also to demonstrate that while brick making is a threat to cultivation in the adjoining locations of brick factories, it is a disincentive to agriculture.
There are roughly 5,000 brickfields in the country. About half of the bricks are baked with coal, making them the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, with several million tons emitted annually. The brick making industry uses mostly a traditional fixed-chimney kiln system, a thoroughly outmoded and inefficient method, reportedly 150 years old. Nearly 80 per cent of the 5,000 brick makers use this traditional technology. An English contemporary reports that over 6.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions are emitted annually.
Environmental groups and the media are quite focused these days on how best to address the problem, which can not just be brushed off as an outright evil. One of the options believed to work well is the introduction of modern green technology capable of taking care of the pollution aspect to a great extent. A UNDP funded project "Green Brick" was initiated in 2010 to introduce modern technology to the country's brick making industry with a shift to greener kilns that experts believe could halve the industry's carbon emissions. It is not clear whether progress of work under the project has reached any satisfactory level.
The popular and widely accepted technology in this regard is smokeless, energy efficient Hybrid Hoffman Kiln (HHF). It has been gathered that the HHF brick kilns can burn most of the fuel used during firing. This also results in less energy use and a considerable cut in production costs. The most notable aspect of the technology is that it dries the bricks by directing hot air into the tunnel from the kiln, which blocks carbon emissions.
Given the wide acceptance of the technology in advanced countries chiefly because of its emission-preventing device, Bangladesh should go for it right away. The cost of the technology is reportedly high. But keeping in view its efficiency, cost-effectiveness, high scale of production and above all emission-free mechanism, it is highly imperative that the government gradually phased out the traditional kilns, and provided necessary support by way of soft-term financing to encourage the green technology.
Finally, because the farm lands are allegedly affected by the toxic emissions in Naogaon, shouldn't the authorities move fast in an attempt to redress the suffering of the farmers, and if possible, recover compensation from the brick kiln owners? But the big question remains: how to obviate the peril that continues to aggravate with time?