Ship breaking industry in Bangladesh
Sourcing cheap steel at the cost of intoxication and deforestation
Sourcing cheap steel at the cost of intoxication and deforestation
In just two decades, Sitakundo beach has been transformed from a quiet, leafy shoreline into a sprawling industrial hub, home to one of the country's largest, most profitable but most controversial industry - ship breaking.
Sitakundo, the 20-kilometre stretched coastline of the country's southeastern part, has also emerged as the world's largest open-air workshop, employing directly or indirectly over 300,000 workers in the thriving ship breaking yards. It provides three-quarters of the country's steel demands - but at a serious environmental cost.
Fuelled by the growing demand of steel to cope with the country's overall economic development, the number of ships broken took a leap off to 100 from just 36 in 2008. The industry roughly recycles some 30 per cent of the world's retired ships, according to London-based broker Clarkson Research.
Ship breakers imported nearly 200 ships last year, acting as the lifeline to the country's infrastructural development but environmental groups have been complaining over the workers' safety and environmental impacts related to this industry. Ignorance to the safety measures and environmental standards in the scrap yards has lead to the deaths of at least 300 workers in the past decade and massive pollution and deforestation have been reported along the southeastern coast.
Human rights and environment protection activists have accused the scrap yards for endangering workers' lives by forcing them to work in direct contact with highly toxic chemicals and dumping untreated litters to open water, putting severe impact on the coastal ecosystem and the lives of the local population. They were also blamed for the rapid deforestation in the region, which have made the local communities exposed to climatic change impacts like river erosion and cyclones and tidal surge.
Study conducted under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowship programme on Coastal Concern unveiled the phase of these steel-making industry and their impacts on the ecosystem thus lives of the people surrounding the industry.
With no iron ore, Bangladesh is dependent on the recycled steel for its fast growing economy. Historically, Alang in western India had been the world's largest ship dismantler but it was outpaced by Sitakundo in early 2008, according to Bangladesh Ship Breakers' Association (BSBA).
The association says, demand (of steel) is booming in Bangladesh due to the six per cent annual growth over the past six years, the biggest boom period in the country's history. Once dismantled, steel plates are melted down by re-rolling mills and turn into steel rods. A yard owner Alhaj Mohammad Yusuf says: Sitakundo's frequent tides and low wages of workers have made it the best place in the world to break ships.
"Due to frequent tides we can beach the ship just two hundred yards (metres) from the coast," he said adding that it saves them thousands of dollars for every ship they break whereas in Alang and China they beach ships two or three kilometres out into the sea.
He said that the natural conditions, combined with growing demand for steel, have attracted bigger ships to the yards, handling ships as big as 80,000 tonnes these days.
"These ship breaking industries are the lifeline for Bangladesh" managing director of the country's largest steel producing company Bangladesh Steel Rerolling Mills (BSRM) said.
The rods made from scrap ships are inferior to those made by top steel producers, but they are at least 20 per cent cheaper than high-grade steel and therefore are overwhelmingly used in the country's construction industries, he explained.
Working together, these ship breakers and rerolling mills have made the country almost self-dependent of its need for steel, he added.
But environmentalists like Mohammad Ali Shaheen who is the local head of the platform on ship breaking campaign questions: is the amount of steel supplied by this industry is really enough to compensate the damage it brings upon the workers and the environment?
Mr Shaheen claimed that Bangladeshi ship breakers dumped an average five tonnes of toxic sludge - such as mercury and asbestos - for every dismantled ship.
"Each ship brings toxic waste, which is dumped in the water, polluting the entire beach. Our study has revealed that this toxic sludge is the leading cause of workers' death," he added.
In the year 2009 alone, as many as 26 people were killed at the scrap yards but independent experts consider the official figure a huge understatement as it only counts on-site accidents and does not include workers laid off after falling ill due to toxic chemicals.
"I know the job is dangerous but this is the only available work in the area where I can earn a living for my family," said Abdul Alim, a 19-year old worker in one among 100 ship breaking yards mushroomed in Sitakundo.
The FE met him during a field visit to ship breaking yards as part of the 2nd CSE Media Fellowship programme on Coastal Concern. He was lying straight on a clumsy bed set inside the makeshift medical hut built near to the scrape yard. He was suffering a deep-cut on the upper portion of his right leg that needed eight stitches.
He said that he had cut himself while at work with a sharp corner of a scrap which forced him to remain off-duty for two days.
"There is hardly any other job available in this area. So I am left with no other option but to come back to this work despite knowing its ever existing danger as well as backbreaking labour against a very poor pay," he said.
Alim needs this job to survive - just as the country also desperately requires the steel that comes from these dismantled old ships.
Ship breaking industries are held responsible for the rapid deforestation that the Sitakundo coastline have been suffering with during the last few decades.
Local environmentalists say that Bangladesh is on the frontline of climate change and that rampant deforestation, particularly by ship breaking yards, is making things worse.
More than 40,000 full-grown trees were felled in the last six months to clear the way for new ship breaking yards, leading environmentalist Mohammad Ali Shaheen claimed.
"Not only are the yards dumping toxic waste on the coast, they are also clearing forests that have been painstakingly planted and nurtured to work as natural barriers to cyclones," he said.
In the past five years, Bangladesh has been hit by two massive cyclones, narrowly escaped two others, which left 5,000 people dead, displaced millions and caused damage worth three billion dollars.
There is now hardly any forest left along the Sitakundo coast, said professor Mohammad Kamal Hossain, a forestry expert at the Chittagong University.
"The ship breakers have gobbled up most of the plantations, showing scant regard to the government's environmental laws," he added.
Felling old growth forest is illegal in Bangladesh but laws are not enforced as ship breaking is a billion dollar industry and yard owners are some of the country's top business tycoons, he explained.
Because of these ship breakers, poor villages along the coast now have practically no natural protection against natural digesters. If any major cyclone like Sidr hits this area, which is very likely, the death toll is feared to be hundreds of thousands, Mr Hossain expressed concern.
Cyclone Sidr, which had wind speed of up to 240 kilometres per hour, hit the country's south-western coast in November 2007 leaving at least 4,000 dead and millions homeless. Experts say, Sidr's toll was far lower than the 1991's cyclone that hit the south-eastern coast and killed 138,000 people. The Sunderbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, stood in the path of Sidr and bore the brunt of the storm.
"The wind speed of the 1991's cyclone was far less than that of Sidr, yet its death toll was 35 times more," Mr Hossain explained forecasting Sitakundo coastline is counting days for a disaster to happen with much greater magnitude, because of the vast deforestation caused by the ship breakers.
"Me and my wife survived the 1991's cyclone and following tidal surge by hanging on to a coconut three for the whole night. But after almost a decade, there are hardly any tree left as we are surrounded by ship breaking yards," Abul Kalam, a shopkeeper, told the correspondent.
Though he lost his parents, brother, sister and young nephew in that dark night of May 1991, Kalam and his wife owe their lives to the protection provided by the trees and that is why they are concerned about the deforestation they are witnessing around them.
Elderly fisherman Jyotindra Jaldash, who lives in a village along Sitakundo coast, said watching his childhood home transform into a shipyard has turned him into a cynic.
"When the ships first arrived here, I liked the look of them. But now they are everywhere," the 70-year old fisherman said.
They have killed all the fishes, cut the forests and soon they will drive us all out of here, he expressed anxiety.
The Bangladesh Supreme Court has recently imposed a strict environmental control rule, making it mandatory to obtain certificate by the selling nation's environmental authorities as 'toxic free.' But the court's verdict is feared to trigger severe protest as witnessed in February of this year. The country's steel industries were in severe crisis as the ship breakers called for a halt and some 30,000 workers staged protest demanding reversing of the court's order to meet the environmental standards. Iron price shoot up by 20 per cent as its impact.
There is no doubt that the country needs scrap steel to sustain its development but at the same time experts urged to ensure the protection of environment. The responsibility goes to the government to monitor the ship breakers in a way to protect their business interest as well as to persuade the yard owners to join hands with the environmentalists as per law.
Instead of punishment or force, involving the ship breakers in the environment protection activities would be the most effective method in this regard, the experts opined.
- Worries about Taka's plummeting value
- Energy use and abuse
- Mankind's scientific progress through the ages
- African Lion and S American Puma
- Floods make life hard and barren in Pakistan
- No easy way to peace in war-ravaged Somalia
- Australia election results may affect immigration policy
- Bangladesh yet to decide on ties with Israel
- Suspected criminal killed in 'gunfight'
- Foreign currencies worth Tk 13m seized at SIA
- PM for judicious settlement of global water disputes (132)
- 20 RMG units at Ashulia shut production (128)
- news digest (125)
- Speed of internet and VoIP (122)
- Nadal, Serena set out stall for French Open (117)
- When will India redeem its pledge? (109)
- Inadequate bank loan for private sector (108)
- Loss of agricultural land (103)
- National budget vis-a-vis local budget (97)
- Toll collection over phone (92)
- Bumper production, lucrative price making litchi growers happy (91)
- I can only play for Barca: Messi (84)