23 October 2011

An overview of shipbreaking in Bangladesh:

Shipbreaking is the process of dismantling old ship to recover steel scrap and other materials. This industry had begun 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 shipbreaking began in Bangladesh. Finally in the year 1984, Bangladesh appears as a major shipbreaking nation in the world.

Until 1960s, shipbreaking activity was considered as a highly mechanized operation that was concentrated in industrialized countries- mainly USA, UK, Germany and Italy. The UK was accounted for 50% of the industry-Scotland ran the largest shipbreaking operation in the world. During the 1960s and 70s, ship breaking activities migrated to semi-industrialized countries like Spain, Turkey and Taiwan, mainly for the availability of cheap labour and the existence of re- rolling steel market. But from early 1980s, shipbreaking is no more cost-effective in those countries and so to maximize profits ship owner's sent their vessels to the scrap-yards of India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam, where health and safety standards are minimal and workers are desperate for work. Bangladeshi industrialists also took the opportunities of this lucrative business which resulted importing more and more ship to Bangladesh. Thus, within a short period, Bangladesh established herself 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. The industry is providing the country's main source of steel and generates large amounts of revenues for various Govt. 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 shipbuilding 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 widely applied in the local ship breaking is unique of this kind. This method, with flat muddy land and huge labour force, replaced the demand of expensive and heavy infrastructure, which is required for pulling and docking the ship. In this beaching method, the ship is sailed with its 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, minimum knowledge of safety is used in this process and that  leads to frequent accidents like explosion, causing death, fatal injuries and permanent disabilities. That is why, apart from economic benefit from this industry, the social and environmental costs demand huge attention for further development of this industry.

Though the shipbreaking in Bangladesh started in sixties, commercially it started in late seventies. The past data of ship recycling showed 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 ton scrap, being considered as one of the global leaders in ship breaking.

But, the ship destined for shipbreaking 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 natural environment if not treated properly. Specific wastes that come generally from the shipbreaking yard are asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bilge and ballast waters, oils and fuels residues. Also, metal cutting process generates large amounts of fumes and particulate matter that pollute air. It also initiates small fires when oil or sludge is ignited by the torch. The improper storage or disposal of scrap metal and other waste generated from metal cutting may result in soil and / or water contamination, primarily from lead and other compounds. Paints and preservative coatings that can be found on both interior and exterior surfaces of a ship may contain toxic compounds such as PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides. Removing paints and coatings have impacts on human health and environment as it emits volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants into the atmosphere. 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. Asbestos that causes cancer and lung diseases is one of the most hazardous elements that some ship contain. Ships built prior to mid 1970s, especially passenger ships, warships, etc. where heat, sound and fire insulation are ensured, contained asbestos. Disposal of this element requires special attention and regulation. In Bangladesh, this type of elements is not handled properly. So it is always better to avoid breaking ships containing asbestos while using beaching method.

In many shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh, workers are not using personal protective equipment (PPE), such as skin, eye or lung protection. Appropriate PPE for working in specialized areas, such as respiratory protective equipment for work in conditions where there is a risk of oxygen deficiency, is also generally not used. There is usually no equipment for machine safety, fire safety, chemical safety and water safety, and when such equipment exists, these are poorly maintained. 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 minimize 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 shipbreaking is necessary for Bangladesh. We should ensure that our breaking yards are maintaining at least minimum standard in respect of health, safety & 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 implies 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 & reception facility, bilge and ballast water treatment facility, labor training etc. We also need some extensive research work regarding shipbreaking in Bangladesh so that we can identify & find need based solution on the basis of the persisting problem of the industry. The Department of Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering of BUET has started such initiatives, but in this case, funding for research work and more co-operations from shipbreakers are highly sought. India has already advanced a long way towards green ship recycling. China is also expanding green ship recycling capacity and already world biggest shipping line MAERSK LINE send all of their retired ships to China  for taking opportunity of environmental friendly scrapping approach. Dalian Shipbuilding industry & ship recycling co. Ltd. of China is expected to start their operation from next June 2011 with the annual recycling capacity of 75 vessels ranging from 50,000 DWT to 300,000 DWT.  Such type of expansion (more or less equal to Bangladeshi capacity) as well as non-compliance of rules and regulations for safe and environmentally sound recycling of ship may pose serious threat to the long term sustainability of existing ship recycling in Bangladesh. It is high time for Bangladesh to improve the negative image through implementation of measures that come out from the research work related to health, safety and environmental aspect of shipbreaking.

Associate Professor, Deptt. of Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering, Dhaka-1000. 

Source: The New Nation. Dr. N.M.Golam Zakaria (gzakaria@name.buet.ac.bd). 23 October 2011

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