These kilns use up 1.27 billion cubit feet of topsoil annually for making bricks, which, like agriculture, needs soil rich in clay content. Nothing can be grown on a piece of land for at least three years if the topsoil is removed.
Alongside the use of topsoil, the Brick Making and Brickfield Establishment (Control) Act of 2013 clearly prohibits the use of soil from hills, mounds, fallow lands and from the bottom of ponds, canals, lakes and rivers.
This law therefore takes away pretty much all the possible sources of soil for the brick-making industry because it does not specify where else the kilns would find the main ingredient for making bricks.
Interestingly, this law – that governs all brick-making related activities in the country – also makes it mandatory for all kilns to make at least 50% of their bricks hollow to reduce the use of fertile soil.
“The irony is that the law prohibits the use of soil but does not specify which other sources to use. But the brick industry is heavily dependent on soil as the main raw material,” said Mizanur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Brick Making Owners’ Association.
However, the law does not encourage the use of alternative bricks and building materials either, like those developed by state-sponsored research body Bangladesh Housing and Building Research Institute (HBRI) through four decades of experimentation.
They have one thing in common – none of these require clay-rich topsoil for making bricks. Alternative ingredients include soil dredged from the bottom of rivers, sand, cement and iron net.
The HBRI says these alternative building materials can save construction costs, have the same longevity as conventional bricks and are much more environment friendly.
“The only thing that the law says about these alternative bricks is that manufacturers do not need a licence for making these bricks,” says Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.
“This is unlike the conventional brick-makers, who need to secure licence from multiple authorities such as the local district administration and the government’s Department of Environment,” the prominent pro-environment lawyer told the Dhaka Tribune recently.
The brick law, which came into effect in 2014, also encourages the use of clean technologies such as Zigzag, Hybrid Hoffman Kiln and Vertical Shaft Brick Kiln.
It also prohibits setting up kilns in residential, commercial and agricultural areas, forests, sanctuaries, wetlands and the ecologically critical areas. Any breach of that is a criminal offence with a maximum punishment of five years in jail or Tk50 lakh fine or both.
Given the rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and increasing housing needs, brick-making is one of the fastest growing industries in Bangladesh, which is worth Tk8.66 billion per year.
It, however, is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emission, estimated to produce six million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Some estimates say about 33% of the fuel used in brick kilns is wood which is also strictly prohibited by the law.
At present, there are around 7,000 active brick kilns in the country and apparently, none of these have either stopped using agricultural topsoil or adopted any of the clean technologies or shifted from residential or agricultural areas.
This clearly indicates that there is very little implementation of the law.
“The alternative materials [developed by HBRI] are relatively friendlier for the environment,” said renowned urban planner Khondoker Neaz Rahman.
Neaz, who is also a former project manager of the UNDP Green Brick Project, suggested that the government should immediately amend the law to incorporate and create demand for the alternative building materials in order to reduce the impacts of conventional brick-making.