Ship recycling leaves tide of death on Asia's beaches
by DPA, Earthtimes (London,UK)
15 May 2009 (Hong Kong) – In the searing heat of a July morning, 13-year-old Sultan Nasiruddin Molla set off for his first day of work on the seemingly endless stretch of muddy coastline in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where young men armed with wrenches and blow torches swarm like ants over rusting skeletons of beached ships. Sultan, excited at the prospect of joining the world of grown-ups and earning his first working wage, never made it back home. Hours after signing up to join the rag-tag brigade of workers dismantling a 5,000-ton vessel with a scrap value of more than 4 million US dollars, a steel girder from the precarious wreckage crashed down onto his head and killed him.
The boy's death last year was nothing unusual. Sultan was the 10th worker to die in 2008 in Chittagong's ship-breaking industry, in which around 11 per cent of the 30,000 labourers are under age, conditions are perilous and wages average from 1 to 2 US dollars a day.
However, the spectre of Sultan and hundreds of other young men who have lost their lives taking apart giant ships on the beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have cast a fleeting shadow over the talks of shippers and industry officials gathered at a diplomatic conference in Hong Kong.
On Friday, the high-profile meeting of the International Maritime Organization sat down in Hong Kong to approve a new convention it claims would make the recycling of ships safer and more environmentally friendly.
Opponents, however, have labelled the agreement a "shipwreck" because it fails to address the issue of beaching - dismantling ships run to ground on beaches rather than on dock sides - and to stop the practice that they said claims the lives of around 60 people a year in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, one of more than 100 organizations from 30 countries who appealed in vain for the conference to help stop beaching, said: "We feel like the child who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Everyone knows this is wrong, but we are the only ones saying it is not acceptable.
"These ships have a lot of asbestos on them and heavy metals, and they give off very toxic fumes when they are cut open with cutting torches. There is a lot of open burning on beaches, and there are horrific accidents from explosions or from falling steel."
In Bangladesh, where around 50 per cent of the world's biggest ships are dismantled, studies have found that the work is done by an overwhelmingly young, poverty-stricken and economical disenfranchised labour force.
Despite the appalling dangers and lack of labour protection, work on the beaches of Chittagong is keenly sought after in a country where poverty is rife, particularly by migrant workers from the north of Bangladesh.
The industry also plays a vital role in the country's economy. Before the shipyards boom of the 1980s, the country of 153 million used to import most of its steel. Today, about 90 per cent is supplied by its recycling industry.
International Maritime Organization Secretary General Efthimios Mitropoulos told delegates preparing to vote on the convention: "I consider it incumbent on all of us to exercise prudence by balancing safety and environmental concerns with the commercial requirements of seaborne trade.
"We should be guided by pragmatism so that the operational efficiency on which ship recycling facilities rely is not unduly compromised. I am convinced that the draft convention before you has all the necessary ingredients to strike the right balance."
This year, with the economic downturn meaning more older vessels are being taken out of service, about 1,000 ships were expected to be decommissioned and sent to shipyards to be broken up - around twice as many as last year - with each major vessel worth millions of US dollars in steel alone.
If the new convention would go so far as to ban beaching altogether, Mitropoulos warned, there was a danger that it would not be supported by countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Under the convention signed Friday, ships sent for recycling must carry inventories of their hazardous materials and be surveyed before recycling. Shipyards are required to provide a recycling plan detailing how each ship would be stripped down and dealt with.
As far as Puckett and his fellow protestors are concerned, it has been a frustrating week.
"There is no way you can protect workers on a beach," he said. "You can't bring in ambulances or fire engines, you can't bring in cranes to lift the heavy materials to rescue people and you can't contain the contamination - it goes straight out to sea.
"This convention is going to put a green gloss over these business practices which really go back to another century. The idea that you can run ships onto an ocean beach and start breaking them open is just insane."
For the family of Sultan, who did not live long enough to see the sun set on his first working day, the political bantering in Hong Kong this week is little more than a faraway postscript to a life cut cruelly short.
And on the oil-stained sands of Chittagong, lines of children and young men follow in Sultan's footsteps, wading through the sludge to seek out work that is brutal and life-threatening - but still badly wanted.
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