DHAKA, Bangladesh — A placard hangs outside the Rashid Autobricks factory in this fast-growing megacity. It reads, "No more pollution! We must survive and allow the next generation to survive."
The sign was put up by humanitarian groups protesting the more than 500 dirty brick kilns clustered on the north side of Dhaka. The factories belch thick black smoke from towering chimneys caked with soot. The kilns are responsible for much of the pollution that makes the air in Bangladesh's capital city among the dirtiest on the planet.
But Rashid is no longer one of the problem kilns relying on 19th-century technology to make clay bricks. In the past year, the kiln has undergone a $2 million makeover. It's now one of the cleanest and most energy efficient kilns of the roughly 5,000 operating in Bangladesh.
Inside, under a red iron shade, an orderly procession of clay chips and unburned bricks roll slowly along conveyor belts. A dozen female workers gently put bricks in order before a machine takes the bricks to the dryer. The ovens are fired by coal, but the process is efficient enough to cut greenhouse-gas emissions almost in half and particulate pollution to one-fiftieth of what the other plants produce.
The transformation was led by M. Kafil Uddin Ahmed, a businessman who presides over an empire of real estate, energy and textile holdings. Ahmed inherited the kiln from his grandfather. After living in the U.K. and returning home to Dhaka, he decided to upgrade the brick factory to burn cleaner and take advantage of automation. Ahmed corralled a $1.35 million credit line from the state-backed Rupali Bank to help.
"I'll do business without harming others," says Ahmed. "That’s why I’ve adopted environment-friendly technology."
Dhaka needs a lot more kiln operators to do what Ahmed did if it’s going to clean up its air. The city of 15 million is caught in a vicious cycle of growth and pollution. The city adds more than 300,000 people a year; those people need homes; demand grows for brick, the predominant construction material; and the air gets more polluted. Each year, the kilns north of Dhaka produce more than 2 billion bricks.
According to a 2011 World Bank report, brick making accounts for about 40 percent of Dhaka’s fine-particle air pollution. The kilns cause 750 premature deaths a year from cancer and cardiopulmonary disease. That human toll is on a scale with the 2013 textile mill collapse outside of Dhaka that killed 1,129 and horrified the world. But the kiln problem attracts little international attention and continues unabated.
The biggest culprit is what are known as “fixed-chimney” kilns, which comprise the bulk of the north Dhaka kiln cluster. These inefficient kilns use outdated technology to burn coal imported from India and firewood chopped from nearby forests. They’re cheap to build and tend to be located on lowlands that flood during monsoons. So they only operate during the dry months from November to May.
In 2010, the national government ordered a shutdown of fixed-chimney kilns by July 2013. Facing opposition from kiln owners, the government has extended that deadline several times. The latest deadline, which no one expects to be enforced, is June 30 of this year.
That's typical of environmental regulation here. Burning firewood in kilns has been illegal since 1989, yet nearly 2 million tons of firewood are burned in kilns annually. Other laws concerning brick manufacturing are routinely flouted and rarely enforced, including a 2013 law that requires kilns to have licenses.
There have been a few bright spots. Clean-burning kiln technologies have been demonstrated through a World Bank-funded program known as the Clean Air and Sustainable Development project. Since 2012, the central bank of Bangladesh has lent about $10 million to finance modernization of brick manufacturing. And the state-owned Infrastructure Development Company plans to invest $50 million into automated brick manufacturing by 2016.
But there hasn't been much in the way of incentives to encourage brick makers to invest, or regulatory pressure to force them. Mohammad Alamgir, who directs the monitoring and enforcement unit at the Department of Environment, admits that extending the deadlines has set a bad example for the industry. "This gives the owners a kind of impression that the timeline will be extended again, resulting in inaction on their part," he says.
Brick makers complain that it's impossible to turn an ancient industry around overnight. A big challenge in this river-delta region is the soaring cost of land on high ground. That’s where the cleanest-burning kiln technologies need to be located to avoid flooding. And kiln owners are typically unable to secure bank credit because low-lying lands can’t be used as collateral.
“Even if I’ve got money, where can I get the land?" says the owner of one kiln on low-lying land. Asadur Rahman Khan, a vice president of the Bangladesh Brick Manufacturing Owners Association, a trade group, is even more blunt. "Clean technology is good for the environment,” he says, "but not for us."
Range of technologies
There are low-cost retrofits for fixed-chimney kilns, but they’re not always effective at cutting emissions. According to the manufacturers association, around one-quarter of the fixed-chimney kilns have adopted technologies known as "zigzag." The name comes from the back-and-forth flow of hot air that can heat bricks more efficiently when properly designed.
In Savar, west of Dhaka, AIM Bricks converted from a fixed-chimney kiln into a zigzag one in 2012. The change cost owner Kawsar Ahmed Mukul $50,000. The new system does not use any less coal. However, it has allowed AIM to nix using firewood as a fuel. Mukul says the process also gives him higher quality bricks that fetch better prices. "Now I get almost 90 percent perfectly burned brick," he says. "It was 60 percent to 65 percent in the past."
The Rashid Autobricks plant uses an entirely different technology from China known as a Hybrid Hoffmann Kiln. Coal is mixed with the clay so the bricks burn from the inside out, a more efficient process that produces lower emissions. This process consumes between 12 and 14 tons of coal to make 100,000 bricks, compared with as much as 22 tons of coal for a fixed-chimney kiln.
The automated factory has a capacity to make 100,000 bricks a day, but its daily production now ranges from 30,000 to 40,000, says Neel Komol, the kiln manager. Automation has also helped the factory cut manpower from 250 to 150, and the jobs are less physically punishing than often seen at Bangladesh kilns. The kiln is located on high ground so it was not as difficult for Ahmed to get financing. Analysts at Rupali Bank say Rashid Autobricks may turn profitable by the end of this year.
The example will be difficult to replicate. At a cost of $2 million, it would cost Bangladesh $10 billion to convert all of its fixed-chimney kilns over to this technology. The World Bank has proposed steps such as tapping carbon markets to access capital and moving kilns into industrial parks on high ground, but the government has not done much to implement them.
M. Khaliquzzaman, a Dhaka-based environmental consultant for the World Bank, says both the government and kiln owners should step up their promises to scale back the pollution from brick-making plants. He says more incentives and regulatory enforcement are needed to convince kiln operators to adopt cleaner technology.
"There are no easy solutions for cleaning up the brick industry, Khaliquzzaman says. "But with commitment from both the kiln owners and the government, the pollution from brick kilns can be cut significantly in the next three to five years."
Ahmed, the owner of Rashid Autobricks, agrees. He thinks change can happen in Dhaka, one kiln at a time. "I hope others will follow in our footsteps,” he says, “and switch to environment-friendly technology."
This post originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.