A graveyard for ships and men
According to a report published by this paper on October 22, "Bangladesh was the top buyer of scrapped ships in the world in the third quarter of 2017, followed by India," as stated by the Brussels-based Shipbreaking Platform. "During the period, 50 scrapped ships were brought to Bangladesh and 44 to India, making South Asia the most preferred destination for scrapping old vessels, which is a hazardous practice for human health and environment."
Meanwhile, a total of 227 ships were taken apart globally, between July and September, while 124 (more than 50 percent) were broken up on the shores of South Asia. It doesn't matter where those ships come from or which parties are bringing them to our shores; what matters is the devastation they leave behind in terms of the human lives lost, the damage they cause to the health of our people and the environmental degradation we suffer from because of a lack of regulatory framework to govern ship-breaking in Bangladesh. The government does not have much data on the number of casualties in this sector nor do verifiable records exist. However, a joint study published in 2005 jointly by Greenpeace, FIDH titled 'End of Life Ships, The Human Cost of Breaking Ships', it was estimated from eyewitness testimonies of workers, that at least a thousand workers had died in the last few decades.
Those involved in the actual ship-breaking process, the workers, work mostly without protective gear and are exposed to all sorts of toxins. The primary reason why Bangladesh tops the charts is because there is much money to be made here at the cost of human lives. There is little or no investment by the breakers nor are there any concerted efforts, either by the government or companies involved in the trade, to contain pollutants and ensure safe working environments.
As put by the Shipbreaking Platform: "The prices offered for ships this third quarter have been high in South Asia, especially when compared to the figures of the first half of the year. Monsoon rains caused a shortage of local product being available to the domestic steel mills and have, therefore, driven prices for end-of-life ships up. Whilst a South Asian breaching yard can pay about USD 400/LDT (large stainless steel screws), Turkish yards are currently paying slightly less than the USD 250/LTD offered by Chinese yards."
No wonder obsolete ships come to die in countries like Bangladesh! We find that ship owners prefer to circumvent international waste laws and regulations laid out by EU Waste Shipment Regulation by falsely declaring that end-of-life ships are still in use when leaving port, which, in effect, allows them to send these ships for scrapping to countries like ours. Now if we look at the data, we find that some 1,250 ocean-going vessels reached the end of their service life in 2012 and were taken apart to recover steel. Unfortunately, some 70 percent of all ships falling into this category were allowed to run aground on the shores of countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where our ship-breaking industry went to work on them without giving two hoots about environmental concerns.
When we look at the workers' wages in our ship-breaking industry, it stands at about 2 Euros per day. That is a pittance compared to the phenomenal profits being made when a ship is broken up.
If we look at the toxic materials that come out of a dead ship being broken up—materials hazardous to both the workers and the environment—we begin to comprehend the gravity of the situation. Asbestos, for instance, is used in engine rooms for having thermal insulation and fire-resistant properties. While extracting asbestos, workers are exposed to fibres that can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. These fibrous materials not only affect the workers on site, rather they get carried home on clothing and in turn, affect family members too.
Heavy metals including mercury need to be disposed of properly, which is not done in Bangladesh. Mercury may cause serious damage to the nervous system. Lead is another metal that can cause permanent retardation, hearing impairment, loss of vision amongst other things. Mineral oil is serious business; it can cause explosions, and if it seeps into the ground or water bodies, it can kill fish and even humans who drink the contaminated water.
These are just some of the examples of hazardous materials that the environment and humans are exposed to when a ship is broken up without proper precautions. We are looking at not just the loss of aquatic species and livelihoods but long-term health hazards. In this backdrop, it is necessary to look at the regulatory framework (or lack thereof) that governs (or does not govern) the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh.
We recognised the industry under the Labour Act 2006. The Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995, Section D states that the owner and importer of ships as well as the users of shipbuilding yards must ensure that scrapping does not cause any pollution and/or health hazards through releasing hazardous wastes, while Section 9 goes on to say that in case of a discharge of excessive environmental pollutant, the person responsible and the person in charge of the place of occurrence shall take measures to control and mitigate the environmental pollution.
According to a research paper published in Marine Policy in 2014, there is a provision under the Environmental Law of 1995 which requires that each and every industry including shipbreaking must have an "Environmental Clearance Certificate" from the Department of Environment, Ministry of Forest and Environment.
The government had formulated Draft Rules on Ship Breaking and Hazardous Waste Management under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995. As we fast-forward to 2011, the Ministry of Industry released the Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules which have not been adopted. Had it been adopted, then we could have had a one-stop service under the aegis of the Ministry of Industry that would have integrated all necessary procedures and permission while cooperating with other responsible departments and ministries. The Ship Recycling Board (SRB) would have been the authority for issuing the various certificates.
A writ petition was filed by Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (BELA) in 2003 and the High Court ruled that the government should ensure that imported ships for the purpose of breaking up must be regulated in line with the requirements laid out in the Basel Convention 1989. Subsequently, BELA filed another case, BELA vs. Bangladesh (2006), and again the High Court ruled that the government should formulate appropriate rules to regulate the industry.
So, we have, in effect, passed six years since the government's formulation of Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules and nothing of note has happened. That merely goes to show precisely how much worth the authorities place on workers' safety and their health and the environment at large. Until we are willing to place health and safety and protecting the environment above fast profits, things will remain as they are.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.