Ship breaking

Ship breaking

Until the 1960s, ship breaking was considered a highly mechanized operation, concentrated in industrialized countries, mainly in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. Over the years it has gravitated toward countries with low labor costs, weak regulations on occupational safety, and limited environmental enforcement. Currently, the global center of the ship breaking and recycling industry is located in South Asia, specifically Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. These three countries account for 70–80 percent of the international market for ship breaking of ocean-going vessels.

Supply of iron and employment are the two main economic arguments behind allowing ship breaking. In Bangladesh ship breaking contributes to meeting 25 to 30 per cent of the total iron demand and employs around 3,000 permanent workers. Compared to the so-called economic contribution of the industry, its environmental and social costs are frightening.

Working Conditions

Shipbreaking activities in Bangladesh are concentrated in the north of Chittagong City on the Bay of Bengal. The people working in shipbreaking yards often come from the poorest areas of the countries. Working conditions can be inhumane. A 2003 government study found nearly 90 percent of workers suffered some form of accidental injury — from foot injuries to serious accidents — while working in Chittagong yards. Shipbreakers often dismantle ships without wearing any sort of protection, inhaling toxic gases and exposing themselves to a great deal of injury.

The International Labour Organisation has described the work on breaking  beaches  as  amongst the most dangerous jobs in the world. Accidents occur on a daily basis, leaving many workers severely injured and permanently disabled. The absence of reliable statistics makes any assessment of the number of accidental deaths linked to shipbreaking on the beaches difficult, but there are strong indications, when adding also deaths due to toxic waste-related illnesses, that the number exceeds one hundred every year. Even more workers get seriously injured. In addition, an investigation by the international Federation for human Rights found that at least 20 percent of the workers in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong are less than 15 years old.

Pollution Heaven

Following strictures in most developed and developing countries, the inherently dangerous ship breaking industry has moved to South Asia taking advantage of the weak enforcement of environment and labor-related laws. The industry has closed in countries that enforce law and take into consideration the environmental and human costs. It has moved to areas that according to the World Bank are regarded as “pollution heavens”. Till the South Asian countries remain illusive about the industry’s short-term profit and fail to take conscious and objective decisions, the economics of ship breaking will continue to favor the developed nations which find a free place to dump their junk without incurring any cost whatsoever.

Ships destined for breaking are “waste”, as defined by the Basel Convention (that deals with hazardous waste), and in most cases likely to contain hazardous substances to an extent rendering such ships “hazardous waste”. Following Basel, the EU has recognised ships for dismantling as “hazardous waste” and so has the judiciary in India and Bangladesh. The EU, however, is ignoring an amendment to the Convention that prohibits export of waste from OECD to non-OECD countries and also the Basel requirement of not sending ships to a destination where they will not be dismantled in an environmentally safe manner. Instead, EU flag carrier ships merely change the flags to those of small island countries prior to their final voyage towards the South Asian beaches, a process termed the Flag of Convenience. This relieves ship owners of all responsibilities to clean their ships and bear the cost of dismantling and environmentally safe disposal of waste.

In Bangladesh, government agencies have tactically bypassed the Supreme Court’s directions to regulate the industry. Ignoring the court’s directions for framing binding rules, Bangladesh’s ministry of environment and forests opted for non-binding guidelines and policies. It also did not pay heed to the court’s directions against giving conditional clearances to ship breaking units and cleared at least 66 such units. The ministry has circumvented directions of court to not allow ships with “inbuilt toxics” unless they are removed outside the territory of Bangladesh by amending the Import Policy Order.

Ship breaking also causes devastating pollution. The ships are laden with asbestos, used in old ships as a heat insulator. As there are no asbestos disposal procedures, during scrapping, workers and the surrounding environment are exposed to the asbestos fibers which may cause cancer and asbestosis. On the shipbreaking beaches, asbestos fibers and flocks fly around in the open air, and workers take out asbestos insulation materials with their bare hands. Exposure to other heavy metals found in many parts of ships such as in paints, coatings, anodes and electrical equipment can result in cancers and also cause damage to blood vessels.

Using the beaching method, ships are broken on sandy sediments without containment. Holes are drilled into the hulls to wash out the oil. Sludge and other nonbiodegradable contaminants are dumped into unsealed pits in the ground where they easily seep away. Open burning of cables creates even worse pollutants such as dioxins and furans which are known to be carcinogens. Oil residues refuses are being spilled, left floating along the entire seashore, and causing serious damage in different ways.

The few studies that have been done of these beach environments have shown high levels of contamination causing the pollution of essential groundwater reserves as well as the tragic loss of local fisheries and associated job. A December 2010 study of the World Bank depicted an alarming state of pollution of soil in the ship breaking area at Chittagong’s beaches. The study also projected that in the next 20 years Bangladesh’s beaches will accumulate not less than 79,000 tons of asbestos, 240,000 tons of PCB, 1,978,000 tons of waste liquid organic and 69,200 tons of the toxic tributyltin.

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