Though the bricks that make up the capital's temples, bahals and houses are a part of Kathmandu Valley's architectural heritage, they are also turning out to be an environmental curse.
As Kathmandu's current population of 1.3 million grows at a breakneck eight percent per year, the furnaces of the brick kilns in the city outskirts can't bake clay fast enough to meet demand.
The effect can be seen everywhere: the malignant eyesores of smokestacks where green paddy fields used to be, the increased pollution and the destruction of the Valley's fertile topsoil (see Land, but no soil). Brick stack emissions make up more than one-third of the air pollution in the Valley, and since most of the kilns are located near the airport, poor visibility on approach forces many planes to divert. "Our main worry are particles below 10 microns because they lodge deep inside the lungs," says Bhusan Tuladhar of Clean Energy Nepal.
Jhaukhel, near Bhaktapur, used to be a bucolic town with terrace paddy fields and clumps of bamboo groves. Today, it looks like an open pit mine. The people of Jhaukhel approached the Department of Cottage and Small Scale Industries (DoCSI), which licenses the kilns, the Ministry of Population and Environment (MOPE) and even the prime minister's office demanding action.
No one listened. So the Bhaktapur Environment Conservation Forum decided to organise a rally against the kilns in November 2003. Things turned ugly at one of the factories, as kiln owner and former ward chairman Tek Bahadur Lakhaju got into a fight with several of the protesters. Maheswor Neupane, who led the rally regrets the violence, but is determined to continue the campaign. "We want to throw the illegal kilns out, and bring the registered ones under government guidelines," he says.
This spring, the Bhaktapur District Office, with DoCSI and the CDO, used police to dismantle more than 35 illegal kilns.
"We have tried many times to dismantle the illegal kilns, but the politicians are on the take and always interfere," says Bhaktapur CDO Gyeh Nath Bhandari. The DoCSI banned further registration of the primitive and polluting bull trench kilns in December 2002, and plans to enforce a total ban by June 2004. According to the department's guidelines, all bull trenches are supposed to be converted to less polluting fixed chimney technology or vertical shaft brick kilns by the end of this month. There are other provisions: all kilns should own property in a 60m radius around the stacks and have a lease for at least five years. The kilns should be at least five km from a forest area and one km from a residential area. It is hard to find a kiln that follows any of these rules.
The old bull trench stacks spew out seven times more soot into the atmosphere than the improved fixed chimney technology. Vertical shaft furnaces are even less polluting. But low grade fuel means that sometimes the supposedly 'improved' kilns are just as bad.
Mahendra Chitrakar, president of the Central Brick Association denies that his kilns pollute. "Matsyagau has seven kilns and yet it is the least polluted part of the Valley," he fumes.
The Danish-supported Institute of Environment Management (IEM) is helping with the new technology, but at the present pace it will take at least until spring next year to replace all running bull trench chimneys with fixed chimneys. "But new technologies need to be used properly, with the right fuel and right procedures," explains IEM's Sanjay Shah. Research in India has shown that a fixed chimney kiln can bring down pollution by 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) is supporting the vertical shaft technology and is carrying out field trials in Lalitpur. Although they are energy efficient and less polluting, owners are reluctant to use them because of the high investment and low productivity. But if run properly, Martin Karcher of SDC says the vertical shaft technology could transform an informal, seasonal and wasteful activity into a formal manufacturing industry.