Raffaele Petralla


The furnace of broken dreams

The furnace of broken dreams

Bangladesh is situated on the deltas of several large rivers passing into the Bay of Bengal. The country’s location on this alluvial plain means there is little natural rock available for use in construction, necessitating use of bricks as the primary material for building.  Bricks are used both directly and broken up into coarse aggregate for the production of concrete. To supply this need there are approximately 5000 privately operated brick kilns within Bangladesh, including 1000 around the capital, Dhaka. Unfortunately, brick kilns have severe negative consequences for health and the environment, across local and global scales.

They contribute mightily to what is considered some of the worst air pollution cities in the world.

During the dry season, when brickmaking is going full tilt, dust and smoke from wood- and coal-fired kilns mingle with clouds of pollution rising from trash fires and vehicle engines, hanging over the city like fog. The kiln operations alone — while representing just 1 percent of the country’s GDP — generate nearly 60 percent of the particulate pollution in Dhaka, according to Bangladesh’s Department of Environment (DOE). Many of those kiln operations — including some 530 sites producing more than 2 billion bricks annually in northern Dhaka — are so-called fixed-chimney kilns, which use inefficient technology with little to no pollution controls.

Worldwide, ambient particulate matter ranks as the sixth leading risk factor for premature death, according to the 2018 “State of Global Air” report, produced by the research nonprofit Health Effects Institute in Boston and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle. Those risks are particularly acute in Dhaka, where fine particle pollution like PM2.5— microscopically small at 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less and a byproduct of combustion — is relentlessly inhaled by residents.

Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to lung cancer and other health problems, and at least one study suggests that it claimed 14,000 lives in Greater Dhaka in 2014.

Next to each brick factory are shanty towns where workers and their families live. All family members, from the age of six, work in the adjacent factory. The youngest children are abandoned for the whole day and the infants are cared in by their siblings a few years older.

They work from dawn to dusk for six and a half days out of seven with a daily lunch break of one hour.

The shacks are 3-4 metres wide, covered with a tin roof resting on bricks. They are 1.5 metres high and without electricity.

Most of them come from the remote areas of the Khulna region, one of the poorest due to climate change and heavy deforestation, which have drastically increased the phenomenon of marine erosion that day after day swallows up tens of metres of land, even pulling in entire villages. The loss of their homes or cultivable land forces these people to migrate to Dhaka in the hope of a better future.

Some factory owners also pay people to persuade the inhabitants of poorer areas to move to the city with the promise of guaranteed jobs and housing at the brick factories.

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