Brick kilns – Tackling an industry that hurts people, animals and the environment

How do we tackle the big polluters in the developing world, while continuing to support people who depend on them? A possible approach has emerged from a multi-organization partnership that looks at the health of humans, animals and the environment together to find holistic solutions.

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Brick kiln in India
Mules prepare to pull carts of bricks at a kiln in India

The sun beats down on the makeshift tin rooftops and unbaked brick walls of the self-constructed living compounds that house many informal workers.

Pregnant women face the appalling prospect of giving birth within the confines of the brick kilns in which they work, where they endure extreme heat, dusty and polluted air, tough terrains, long relentless hours and backbreaking labour.

Children grow up facing the reality of joining the brick kiln workforce before their 14th birthday.

Animals collapse under the weight of heavy loads after hours of working under the baking sun, with limited access to water.

As a backdrop, chimneys steadily belch out black smoke full of air pollutants from the coal being burnt to bake the bricks.

This is a snapshot of life toiling in the 152,700 active brick kilns of South Asia, a huge contributor to pollution across the continent: according to the World Bank, the brickmaking sector is responsible for up to 91 per cent of total particulate matter emissions (solid airborne particles) in some South Asian cities.

It may beg the question: “but, if these brick kilns are so damaging in so many ways, why can’t they be shut down?”

It’s complicated. These kilns employ over 16 million people and 500,000 animals, mainly horses, donkeys and mules, to make 86 per cent of the world’s bricks.

Vicious cycles keep them locked in poverty and desperate situations.

Many workers have limited access to healthcare and social protection schemes, and are trapped by low wages and debts that are often passed down through generations.

The debts are often so large and have such huge interest rates that people spend their entire lives living and working in the kilns.

Owners work their animals for long hours with heavy loads in an attempt to pay off these debts. This means many animals suffer frequent illness and injury, including hoof problems, wounds from ill-fitting harnesses and even death through sheer exhaustion.

With the urban population projected to reach 250 million by 2030, this industry will continue to grow, and with it, myriad associated issues for humans, animals and the environment.

Radical change to the way the kilns work would be a logical alternative, but a long-term solution is still decades away.

To get there, short- to medium-term solutions are needed.

One Health to tackle these disparate yet closely connected problems

An obstacle that has stood in the way of finding new solutions is the fact that no one organization or sector has the expertise necessary to tackle all of the issues inherent in brick kilns across South Asia.

Until recently, different sectors tackled different issues in the brick kilns separately, leading to slow progress.

Enter the One Health concept, which was developed to acknowledge the interconnected nature of human health, animal health and environmental health, and invite organizations and actors in each of these fields to work together.

It was with this concept in mind that, in 2018, Brooke, an equine health and welfare organisation, formed a coalition of organisations dedicated to better labour, animal health and welfare, child labour, conversation and environmental health respectively.

These organisations include the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), the Donkey Sanctuary, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), ActionAid Nepal, International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Global Fairness Initiative.

This coalition was formed in recognition of the fact that finding a way to support and improve the lives of those working in brick kilns, and the state of the environment they worked in, would also improve the health and welfare of animals working in these kilns.

One co-benefit of these efforts would be the reduction of air pollution, which has impacts on almost every major organ of the human body.

One intervention led by a coalition partner to date has been the ‘Green Bricks’ initiative, which is tackling harmful kiln emissions through the implementation of new ‘clean air’ technology.

ICIMOD is working with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) in South Asia to train brick entrepreneurs and raise awareness of new increasingly cost effective and scalable kiln technologies and improvements in the brick production process.

One of these technologies, called zigzag, reduces coal consumption by 20 per cent and produces up to 70% lower levels of pollution than the existing technology; a win for the environment, people and animals.

Other interventions have included the introduction of human and animal first aid kits into kilns, health and safety training, linking workers to social care and health care schemes.

The organization that hatched the idea for the coalition, Brooke, works through partners, local staff and dedicated community engagement teams in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Afghanistan to make lasting improvements to animals, people and the environment.

Globally, it works with equine owners to help them understand how to better care for their animals and work them in a welfare friendly manner, reducing the likelihood of injury to the animal, which can often in turn prove crippling to their owner.

“Brooke’s contribution is one part of a much bigger picture. We must continue to innovate and collaborate in order to tackle these disparate but innately connected fields; human health, animal health and environmental health. Only by embracing a One Health approach to our work in brick kilns are we truly be able to enact lasting changes for working animals, the people who rely on them and the environments they work in— which in turn reaps health benefits for a much larger population,” said Brooke Pakistan Advocacy Manager, Naeem Abbas.

Harry Bignell is the Global External Affairs Officer for the Brooke.

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