Photo: Raj Anikat, Chittagong/Driknews
Ship breaking is the process of dismantling old ship to recover steel scrap and other materials. This industry began in Bangladesh in 1960, when a violent storm left a giant cargo ship and beached near sea shore of Fauzdarhat at Chittagong. In 1974, Al Abbas, a salvaged Pakistan Navy vessel, which was sunk during liberation war, was scrapped by Karnafully Metal Works and since then commercial ship-breaking began in Bangladesh. Finally in the year 1984, Bangladesh appeared as a major ship breaking nation in the world.
During the 1960s and 70s, ship breaking activities were concentrated in industrialised and semi-industrialised countries like US, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Taiwan. But from early 1980s, ship breaking was no more cost-effective in those countries and so to maximise profits ship owner's sent their vessels to the scrap-yards of India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where health and safety standards are minimal and workers are desperate for work. Bangladeshi industrialists took the opportunities and thus, within a short period, Bangladesh established itself as a leading ship-breaking nation in the international market.
Ship-recycling industries have been located along the coastal belt of Bangladesh, from Bahatiary to Barwalia at Sitakund. There are more than 100 registered ship-recycling yards located in this area. This industry is providing the country's main source of steel and generates large amount of revenues for various government authorities. There are more than 50,000 people directly involved in this industry, and more than 100,000 people are involved indirectly. It is currently supplying 60% of the raw materials for local steel production. It is also contributing to the local ship building through supplying used machineries and materials. Other industries like construction industry, re-rolling mills, steel mills, oxygen plants, cable, ceramic, and furniture factories are being benefited from ship recycling.
The beaching method is widely applied in the local ship breaking. In this method, the ship is sailed with maximum speed using its own power during the high tide and forced to be beached over the flat muddy land where it is dismantled to small parts using semi-skilled and unskilled labour during low tide. Then the dismantled parts are pulled to the dry shore area using electric winch and labour force. Gas cutting is widely used to make relatively small pieces from the steel structure. Usually, the lack of knowledge of safety in this process leads to frequent accidents like explosion, causing death, fatal injuries and permanent disabilities.
Although ship breaking in Bangladesh started in the sixties, but commercially it bloomed in the late seventies. The past data of ship recycling shows that Bangladesh played a significant role in the ship recycling world, particularly from 2000 to 2010. During this period Bangladesh grabbed 30% share of total global recycling in terms of LDT (Light Displacement Tonnes). Only in 2009, Bangladesh recycled around two million tonnes of scrap, being considered as one of the global leaders in ship breaking.
But, the ship destined for ship breaking may contain significant quantities of toxic and hazardous materials which may cause serious health and safety hazard to human beings and also produce long term adverse effects on the environment if not treated properly. Specific wastes that come generally from the ship breaking yard are asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bilge and ballast waters, and oil and fuel residues. Also, metal cutting process generates large amount of fume and particulate matter that pollute air. The improper storage or disposal of scrap metal and other waste generated from metal cutting may result in soil and/or water contamination. Paint and preservative coats that can be found on both interior and exterior surfaces of a ship may contain toxic compounds such as PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides. The gases used in refrigeration systems of ship can contribute to global warming if released during dismantling. Excess noise associated with grinding, hammering, metal cutting, and other activities can cause hearing impairment, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, annoyance and sleep disturbance.
In many ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, workers are not using personal protective equipment (PPE), such as skin, eye or lung protection. Appropriate PPE for working in specialised areas, such as respiratory protective equipment for work in conditions where there is a risk of oxygen deficiency, is also generally not used. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of workers do not receive any information on the hazards or risks to health and safety, nor do they receive any training on how to minimise risks to health and safety at work. Improper storage and disposal of scrap metal and waste contaminate the soil and groundwater resources, causing acute and long-term pollution. Most of the ship-breaking yards have neither any containment to prevent pollution of soil, air, marine and freshwater resources, nor the technology needed to ensure the environmentally safe management and disposal of hazardous wastes and materials.
It is no doubt that ship breaking is necessary for Bangladesh. We should ensure that our breaking yards are maintaining at least a minimum standard in respect to health, safety and environmental issues and at the same time, we should move towards green ship recycling in order to upgrade our facilities in compliance with proposed international regulation. Green recycling does not necessarily mean that we have to follow dry docking instead of beaching. Rather, keeping the beaching intact, we can improve the situation by providing some common facilities which we are lacking now, like hazardous waste treatment and reception facility, bilge and ballast water treatment facility, labour training, etc. We also need some extensive research work regarding ship breaking in Bangladesh so that we can identify and find need based solution on the basis of the persisting problems of this industry. The Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering of BUET has started such initiatives, but in this case, funding for research work and more co-operations from ship breakers are highly sought. India has advanced greatly and that is why they can present their ship breaking in the international seminar/conference on the basis of their research work on risk assessment and mitigation activities, action plan, workshop, documentation, etc. and everybody is convinced that India is moving towards green ship recycling. It is high time for Bangladesh to move forward to improve our negative image through implementation of measures that come out from the research work on health, safety and environmental aspect related to ship breaking.
The writer is Associate Professor, Dept. of Naval Architecture & Marine engineering, BUET, Dhaka-1000. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org