Coal imports are soaring to fuel hundreds of brick kilns that produce the key construction material to feed the growing demand from both public and private sectors.
Imports of the fossil fuel rose 70 percent year-on-year to 57.54 lakh tonnes in fiscal year 2018-19, customs data showed.
In monetary terms, Bangladesh’s private importers spent Tk 3,950 crore to buy coal in the last fiscal year, and the cost of import of the fuel was two and a half times the import cost three years ago.
“The number of brick kilns is increasing. Kilns cant’ burn bricks without coal as the government has banned the use of firewood,” said Syed Atiqul Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Coal & Coke Importers Association (BCCIA).
He said 98 percent of the imported coal are used to burn bricks to support the increasing demand from public and private sector construction.
The construction sector grew 10.25 percent in 2018-19, up from 9.92 percent the previous year, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
“Demand for coal is rising every year owing to increasing consumption of bricks, buoyed by development activities and rising construction of brick-built houses,” Hassan said.
The spiraling imports of coal and its use in the kilns stoked concerns about increased carbon emission and other environmental pollutants in the atmosphere and their harmful effects on health, agricultural yields and climate.
“Coal is one of the major air pollutants,” said Mohd Abul Matin, executive vice-president of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.
“The air quality in Dhaka city is the worst in the world and the use of coal has played a major role.”
The actual number of brick kilns in Bangladesh and the bricks they produce is hard to come by. The number of kilns will be between 7,000 and 10,000, producing 2,100 crore to 4,300 crore pieces of bricks annually, according to trade bodies representing brick makers.
The Department of Environment (DoE) recorded 8,033 brick kilns in 2018. Mizanur Rahman Babul, president of the Bangladesh Brick Manufacturing Owners’ Association, said 12-14 tonnes of coal are needed to burn one lakh pieces of bricks.
“We don’t disagree that our kilns are polluting the environment by emitting carbon and other pollutants. But pollution will not end if we shift to automatic kilns as the use of clay will continue affecting farming,” he said.
“We will have no objection if the government bans the use of clay bricks after a certain period and makes the use of unburn block bricks compulsory,” he said.
A total of 98 tunnel and Hybrid Hoffman Kilns dubbed as cleaner and more efficient kilns are also in operation, said BN Dulal, secretary general of the Bangladesh Auto Brick Manufacturers Association.
He said the total number of brick kilns would be 10,300 and 62 percent of them are zigzag. The rest are traditional fixed chimney kilns, which release large quantities of carbon dioxide and other environmental pollutants into the atmosphere.
Dulal said tunnel kilns consume 8-10 tonnes of coal to burn one lakh pieces of bricks and the amount of carbon emission from auto kilns is not excessive.
“We use warm carbon to dry green bricks in our kilns. As a result, we have no excess carbon emission,” he said.
Both Babul and Dulal said there are many traditional brick kilns that are using firewood to burn bricks.
BCCIA President Hassan said the use of coal would increase if the use of firewood is stopped fully.
Currently, most of the coals are imported from Indonesia and South Africa.
Stakeholders suggested controlling imports of coals with high sulphur contents to cut pollution.
A senior official of the DoE said they are working with the commerce ministry to regulate the import of coal with high sulphur content.
Import of the fuel is expected to rise once the coal-fired power plants come into operation, said Matin of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.
“Coal is known as the worst fuel for the environment and its increasing import is going to add further woes to the already polluted environment.”