If you visit Amin Bazar on the capital's outskirts in winter, you will find a foggy haze rolling in with brick kilns dotting the landscape as far as eyes can see.
Chimneys keep emitting plumes of smoke while piles of firewood lie in places. Labourers are seen busy collecting topsoil from some nearby fields for making bricks.
For years, these kilns have been taking a toll on the environment in the area. Locals blame those ovens for their various health issues, including breathing problems, caused by air pollution. They also claim that many trees have stopped providing fruits and the productivity of agricultural fields has also come down significantly in recent times.
The fact that might upset you even more is Amin Bazar is not the country's only place encountering environmental hazards thanks to the traditional kilns. The 2015 statistics from the Department of Environment (DoE) put the countrywide number of kilns at 6,893.
However, there is good news for environment lovers -- a research institute has made a special type of brick that does not need any baking in kilns. The brick is actually a compressed stabilised earth block made from soil dredged out of rivers and cement.
The Housing and Building Research Institute (HBRI) has been in the process of the new-tech brick production for the last three years and some government and private organisations have already started using the alternative bricks.
“There is no use of topsoil and firewood and there is no pollution. This [the brick] is eco-friendly, agriculture-friendly and cost-effective,” said HBRI Director Mohammad Abu Sadeque.
Funded by the European Union, a project under SWITCH-Asia Programme is being implemented by the HBRI, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Housing and Public Works, to promote the alternative bricks among consumers and producers.
BRICK KILNS: ENEMY OF ENVIRONMENT
Brick kilns are one of largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Bangladesh.
According to a 2016 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report, the country produces 22.71 billion pieces of bricks a year. In doing so, a World Bank report says, the brick kiln sector consumes 3.5 million tonnes of coal and 1.9 million tonnes of firewood, emitting 9.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas annually.
During the dry season, 58 percent of the total air pollution in Dhaka city is caused by the brickfields, show DoE data.
It is needless to say how these gases affect the public health.
Besides, digging up topsoil from agricultural lands reduces fertility.
Many marginal farmers are lured or forced into selling topsoil to the wealthy and influential brick kiln owners in the country.
Taking the harmful consequences into account, India and China have already prohibited collecting topsoil from agricultural land. Bangladesh's Brick Burning Control Act, 1989 (revised in 2013) also prohibits such use of soil of agricultural land where two crops are grown a year, say environmentalists.
Moreover, as per the seventh five-year plan, the government is to stop the use of topsoil in brickfields by 2020.
But, the harmful practice continues unabated in Bangladesh with experts warning that it might put the country's food security under threat.
THE ALTERNATIVE BRICK
The alternative bricks could be a relief for the environment, say experts, as they would help reduce pollution and prevent destruction of arable land.
During a visit to the HBRI's office in Darussalam area of Mirpur recently, this correspondent saw some workers making such bricks with the use of a moulding machine. They were working under the supervision of a researcher.
Each of the bricks contained 90 percent river-dredged soil and the rest was cement. The machine pressurised the two components and gave them the shape. Later, the bricks were left in the open for 14 to 28 days before they became ready for use.
The raw materials are found easily and the bricks can be produced with auto or manual moulding machines, Mesbah Uddin, a researcher at HBRI, said.
The price of an auto moulding machine is around Tk 20 lakh. It can produce 5,000 to 10,000 bricks every day, he said, adding that, the machine, unlike the kilns, doesn't occupy much space.
Apart from making the alternative bricks, HBRI claims to have invented 20 to 25 types of alternative building materials like ferrocement and thermal block for making floor, roof and wall.
On its office premise, the HBRI has constructed different structures, including a five-storey building, cyclone shelters and a floating building, using these materials to demonstrate them.
The production of alternative bricks are 30 percent cost effective than that of the traditional bricks, said Abu Sadeque, the HBRI director, adding that, the earth blocks are not that prone to erosion.
The institute gives technical support to the users and those who want to manufacture the materials commercially.
Researcher Mesbah Uddin said the response they have been getting of late from people was encouraging. "Eight to 10 interested people come every day to us to know about the materials," he added.
Nazrul Islam, a resident of Mirpur, was one of those people found at the office. "I would like to build a house in my village home with these materials," he said.
MORE MEASURES REQUIRED
Abu Sadeque, however, said they were yet to get the expected response from the major government institutions, including the Public Works Department (PWD), the Education Engineering Department (EED) and the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED).
HBRI-made 15 building materials have recently been incorporated into the "rate schedule" of PWD, opening up scope of their use in government projects.
A proposal has also been given to include a provision in the Brick Manufacturing and Brick Kilns Establishment (Control) Act. The provision would be that 20 percent of the total bricks produced by each kiln would have to be alternative bricks.
"In that case, the use of 20 percent alternatives bricks has to be made mandatory in every government project. Otherwise, the private kilns owners won't be interested in producing the bricks,” Abu Sadeque said.
As the country has no dedicated organisation to take the HBRI-invented products to the filed level, the role of the PWD, the EED and the LGED would be crucial in this regard, he added.
Talking to The Daily Star recently, architect Iqbal Habib said the government should start using environment-friendly and cost-effective building materials in all its projects right away.
Iqbal, also a joint-secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa), said the government also should give incentive and encourage private investors to produce the alternative bricks.
“If these can be done, we will be able to save our air, water, land and labourers from permanent losses caused by the brick kilns,” he added.
A leading environmental activist Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the government must stop giving approval to new brick kilns and set a specific timeframe for the closure of the existing kilns.
The government can provide financial support to the kiln owners through Bangladesh Bank's green financing fund so that they can go for producing alternative bricks instead of fire bricks, she said.
The government also has to incorporate provisions in the Building Construction Act, its rules and the National Building Code, making the use of alternative bricks mandatory, she added.