The need to rebuild after Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake has presented an unexpected opportunity to rebuild environmentally friendly brick kilns in Nepal.
Kathmandu: Below skies darkened by thick black smoke, hundreds of thousands of brick kiln workers endure back-breaking labour and suffocating heat working in almost medieval conditions across South Asia.
But in one corner of the region, the need to rebuild after Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake has presented an unexpected opportunity.
While much work remains to be done in improving working conditions, an environmental initiative has already managed to reduce emissions from the kilns and efforts are now focusing on rolling out the programme across the region, with significant implications for tackling climate change.
There are more than 150,000 kilns in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal belching out thousands of tonnes of soot - known as black carbon - a major air pollutant and the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. The factories are stuck in a bygone era. Workers toil away in furnace-like heat in a form of modern day slavery - bonded labourers trapped by landlords in ever-spiralling debt.
These labourers are sold between landlords and the debt starts with the sum they are sold for. It grows as the workers borrow money for food, medical care, even the bricks they use to build homes on the edge of the kilns.
Along with much of Nepal, the industry was devastated by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit in 2015, killing around 9,000 people and flattening about a third of the country's brick kilns.
But despite the scale of the human tragedy, the devastation presented environmentalists with a rare chance to clean up at least one part of the notoriously filthy industry.
The brick kiln owners remain resistant to interference from labour rights groups, but they saw potential profit in working with environmental campaigners.
The Brick Kiln Initiative, launched by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), found a way to redesign the ovens and stack the bricks differently so that less toxic soot is produced.
“We wanted to do three things: decrease emissions, increase efficiency and make the kilns earthquake-resistant,” said BidyaBanmali Pradhan, programme coordinator for the initiative.
The problem is acute, with industrial soot emissions from the region having a worldwide impact.
South Asia has the highest such emissions in the world, according to a NASA study. The soot collects on the Arctic ice, decreasing the earth’s ability to reflect the sun’s rays and contributing to warming globally. Higher temperatures are affecting global weather patterns and have disrupted South Asia’s annual monsoon rains, with some areas left at risk of drought while others suffer deadly deluges.
In 2017, more than 1,200 people died across South Asia in the worst monsoon floods to hit the region in years.