5 June 2020

Brick kilns – how to tackle an industry that hurts people, animals and the environment

Harry Bignell, Brooke's Global External Affairs Officer, blogs on World Environment Day about Brooke's collaborative work in brick kilns

women loading bricks in India

How do we tackle the big polluters in the developing world, whilst continuing to support people who depend on them? What we can do is look at the health of humans, animals and the environment together to find holistic solutions.

Extreme heat, dusty and polluted air, tough terrains, long relentless hours and backbreaking labour. These are some of the working conditions endured by people and animals alike across South Asia’s 152,700 active brick kilns. The kilns are a huge contributor to pollution across the continent - according to The World Bank, the brick making sector is responsible for up to 91% of total Particulate Matter emissions (solid particles in the air) in some South Asian cities.

So we should just close them, right? Or at least radically change the ways the kilns work. Arguably yes, but the long term solution is still decades away.  
These kilns employ over 16 million people and 500,000 animals, mainly horses, donkeys and mules, to make 86% of the world’s bricks. With the urban population projected to reach 250 million by 2030, this industry will continue to grow, and bring with it myriad associated issues for humans, animals and the environment . We need to have short-medium term solutions (see: Brick by Brick report).

loading bricks in a kiln

Life in the kilns

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 kiln, and children grow up facing the reality of joining the brick kiln workforce before their fourteenth birthday. Animals collapse under the weight of heavy loads after hours of working under the baking sun, with limited access to water. In the backdrop, chimneys belch out black smoke full of carbon dioxide from the coal being burnt to bake the bricks.

The reality of life in these kilns often mean that horse, donkey and mule owners have greater concerns than the welfare of their animal. 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. This is the reality of poverty and the desperate situation many of these owners are in. 

mule waits to be loaded with bricks - Pakistan

So how to tackle these disparate yet closely connected problems? One Health

The One Health concept was developed  to acknowledge the interconnected nature of human health, animal health and environmental health, and invite organisations and actors in each of these fields to work together. Until recently, different sectors tackled different issues in the brick kilns separately, leading to slow progress. For example, as an equine health and welfare organisation, Brooke alone does not have the expertise necessary to tackle all of the issues inherent in brick kilns across South Asia.

So in 2018, Brooke 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 to truly improve the health and welfare of animals working in these kilns, we must find a way to support and improve the lives of their owners, and the state of the environment they work in. 

Interventions to date 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 and the ‘Green Bricks’ initiative which is tackling harmful kiln emissions through the implementation of new ‘clean air’ technology. One of these technologies called zigzag, reduces coal consumption by 20 per cent and produces significantly lower levels of pollution; a win for the environment, people and animals.

providing water for a brick kiln horse

Brooke’s contribution

Brooke works with equine owners to help them understand how to better care for their animals and work them in a welfare friendly manner, increasing their time to rest, facilitating access to water and reducing the loads they are forced to carry. This reduces the likelihood of injury to the animal, which can often in turn prove crippling to their owner.

We work 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. We train animal health professionals and tradesmen, including local vets, farriers and saddle makers, to ensure owners have access to local, well-trained vets and the best quality care and equipment possible.

Holistic change through One Health

Brooke’s contribution is one part of a much bigger picture. Only by embracing a One Health approach to our work in brick kilns are we truly able to enact lasting changes for these working animals and the communities who depend on them.