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Killing Hope: Dhaka’s Brick Kilns Dystopia

keith harmon snow

Fire keepers (above) shovel scoops of powdered coal into the vents at one of thousands of brick kiln furnaces in Bangladesh (and India). Environmentalists in Bangladesh (and India) have claimed (rightly) that the brick kilns not only pollute the air, but are also causing acidification and toxic burning of fertile topsoils, thus pushing the country toward food insecurity. People take the work out of desperation, needing to feed their families and have some, any, income at all.

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Kiln Hope

Dhaka is perhaps the world’s most polluted and heavily populated city. The fast pace of change and increasing industrialization are coupled with a near complete lack of regulations or protections on human health, labor, safety or the environment.

The brick kilns of Dhaka’s Savar District—exemplifying the worst conditions—are killing people. The production of bricks at kilns involves the burning of biomass, coal, used tires, etc., and the constant burning creates a toxic haze that settles over everything.

Mixed with the toxic fumes from nearby unregulated manufacturing, the air, soil and water are heavily polluted. In general, Dhaka’a air particulate concentrations are more than 90 times greater than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

With the rising demand for construction materials to carter to the infrastructure growth, the brick manufacturing industry in Bangladesh has risen dramatically. Therefore, brickfields have thrived and mushroomed all over the country with heavy concentration at the outskirts of cities and towns. The brick making industry in Bangladesh is transitioning slowly towards mechanization, they are largely using inefficient, dirty technology, informal seasonal employment methods and haphazard growth. The unplanned development of the brick industry is completely unsustainable.

One kiln produces some 48,000 kilograms of carbon monoxide in one season, the Bangla calendar year is traditionally divided into six seasons, and there are more than 5000 kilns in Bangladesh producing some 15 billion bricks annually, valued at US$640 million.

This story focuses on the people and kilns along the Buriganga River in Dhaka’s Savar District.  ~

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DYSTOPIAN DREAMS

HOPE BEYOND HOPE

Some of the poorest people in the world, living and working in one of the world’s poorest countries, where population density, pollution and extreme climate change combine to create a dystopian nightmare from which there is no waking.  Skies often grey or blacken at midday, depending on the winds, other weather, and the number of kilns operating in close or far proximity.  Industrial factories also dot the land, interspersed with the kilns, and the whole place is crossed by high-tension towers and lines.  Existing under the multiple hardships and burdens, the people nonetheless display a resilience and hope for a better life.

ghjjj hjhjh hjh ;kjh  jhkjh jkhkjh kjh jh kjh kjghui ytouty; ;kjh 'pou'o iyy oy; oy ;oy; ouy uyuh; uh; ;oiyhh;  hj
ghjjj hjhjh hjh ;kjh jhkjh jkhkjh kjh jh kjh kjghui ytouty; ;kjh 'pou'o iyy oy; oy ;oy; ouy uyuh; uh; ;oiyhh; hj

Some recent (2019) reports about air quality and pollution due to brick kilns indicate that several hundred brick kilns around the capital Dhaka “were responsible for 82 per cent of Dhaka’s air pollution turning it into the top-ranked unlivable city on earth.”

Women bear the multiple burdens of working the hard labor of the kilns while also managing the home and family. 

The fallout from the smoke stacks coats everything with toxic dust, and has caused widespread defoliation of trees in some areas.

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A young boy rests from the work keeping the fires going on top of one of the kilns. His skin is coated with a red film from the fine brick dust, and he wears a scarf as a head band and to try to keep the toxic air out of his lungs.

The living situation in the brick kiln areas varies. Some people live in tight apartment building like quarters, other in tight shantytowns, and some occupy raised buildings on stilts to weather the monsoon rains and floods of the nearby river.  Imagine no possessions, no running water, no protections from malarial mosquitoes, gnats or other pests. Women and children also gather cow dung which they ball up and dry in the hot sun to be sold for combustable material for poor people’s cooking fires in the city.

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One of the owners of this kiln watches over the work at the kiln at sunset. Many kiln owners are elite landlords with large landholdings and many business operations. There is a huge disparity in wealth, quality of life, between the workers and owners.  The laborers toil and exits under the burden of many unfreedoms.

Workers at one kiln haul buckets of coal dust to feed the furnaces that bake and cure the bricks.  Some recent (2019) reports about air quality and pollution due to brick kilns indicate that several hundred brick kilns around the capital Dhaka ‘were responsible for 82 per cent of Dhaka’s air pollution turning it into the top-ranked unlivable city on earth.

The workers feed coal dust by small scoops at a time into vents located on top of the furnaces. A lot of the ‘technology’ is rudimentary, primitive stuff. 

The workers carefully stack thousands of bricks before and after they are baked in the kiln. 

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Laborers at a brick kiln work hauling and stacking bricks for the next baking cycle. Some workers will spend whole days in the same repetitive tasks. Women and children also participate in hauling and cleaning bricks, and other tasks, and they receive less than men, something under $US 4 for an 8 to 10 hour shift.

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There are many industrial hazards at the kilns, and no protections from industrial accidents.

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A young woman works long shifts shoveling pulverized coal dust after it is ground by the primitive gas-powered machine at right. These women have no protective equipment, no respiratory protection, no footwear. Inhalation and ingestion of pulverized coal dust leads to serious illness.

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Mohammed Emon Hossain Bappy (17) stands outside the makeshift shack he will call “home” for six months at a time. Mohammed lives far north of Dhaka; he will spend 6 months working and sleeping at the kiln before returning home with money for parents. He earns less than ~ $US 130 a month. He works in a 6 hours work-sleep rotation, 7 days a week.

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Mohammed Emon Hossain Bappy (front) sleeps at midday in the makeshift housing provided by the company and located on the company land at the site of the kilns. Mohammed shares his living space, which he will occupy for 6 months before return ing to his village in northern Bangladesh, with many other men. A single kiln might employ anywhere from 100 to 300 temporary laborers.

A woman laborer (right) grimaces under the combined burden of the heavy basket of coal, the greasy black smoke of the gas engine, and the particulates of soot and coal that are blown into her face. Another woman laborer (left) runs the grinding machine that churns coal to a fine powder for the furnace. These women earn 200 to 300 taka (under $US 4) for an 8 to 10 hour shift. They have no respiratory or other safety equipment, and no footwear.

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The bright colored saris and tunics, and the smiling faces so often seen, even in the face of such extreme hardship and environmental problems, are emblematic of the friendly, warm and graciousness of the Bengali people and culture.

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Two men bathe in a stagnant polluted pond due to an absence of clean running water.

The fallout from the kilns disburses toxic contaminates in water, over vegetable gardens and into the food sources. Plastics pollution, as seen on this walking path, is also a serious problem.

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A child laborer pauses during the clean-up of fine brick dust; with no protective respiratory gear and improper skin protection, laborers will suffer serious disease. This child’s pay for working long hours is under $US 2 per day.

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