23 June 2015

Shipbreaking—the looming signal:

Concerns voiced over safety and environmental hazards associated with ship-breaking in Bangladesh are not new. The latest that has come is perhaps more strong-worded than ever. It has come from the Norwegian Ship Owners’ Association (NSA). At a recent convention held in Singapore, NSA advised its members not to allow recycling of their ships in Bangladesh, unless it is done in keeping with the Hong Kong International Convention for ‘Safe and Environmentally Sound’ recycling of ships. Reports say, NSA has decided not to export their ships for recycling in Bangladesh, as several earlier attempts to raise the ship-recycling standards in the country did not succeed.

The Norwegian stand appears to be further toughened by a reported move of the European Union (EU), which accounts for 20 per cent of the total scrap vessels sold around the world, to ban export of scrap ships to Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. Twenty-eight countries under the EU are reported to have prepared a guideline banning export of their ships to the subcontinent — Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

These, no doubt, are grave signals to reckon with, if the country is to see its ship-breaking industry continue, if not thrive, under the difficult circumstances. The concerns are not just expressions of anxiety as they used to be in the past, but are now clearly action-driven meant to cause a drastic cut in the availability of scrap vessels to be dismantled for recycling.

Given the state of things in the country’s ship-breaking yards, including among others the accidents and deaths due to unsafe conditions, one has to admit that the situation, neglected for decades without any meaningful improvement in work conditions, has by now become too heavy a burden to shoulder. There were repeated moves from various quarters including international bodies and rights groups to raise the standard of work culture in the ship-breaking yards. There are also allegations of ship-breaking companies importing highly toxic foreign vessels despite a ban. Besides, the 2009 court order to ensure workers’ safety and implement environmentally sound practices has not been adhered to. The media and the NGOs have been blaming state regulators — including the department of environment and the ministries of shipping and labour — for failing to protect coastal ecosystems and to monitor these companies’ compliance with safety precautions. Occasionally, there were some stern actions on the part of the law enforces as was seen in the eviction of two breaking yards which were set up by destroying coastal forest in Sitakunda, Chittagong in early February last year.

Of late, however, there are some moves to improve upon the prevailing situation. A work plan for improving health facilities and workers’ safety as well as for managing hazardous waste and addressing the problem of oil pollution under the German-funded partnership project is in the process of implementation. The authorities are also planning to set up a central dumping zone. Upgradation of facilities like fire fighting, cylinder storage and drinking water is also in the process. It will surely take time to see the results. Experts are of the opinion that piecemeal moves are not going to produce desired results. As the entire process involves a whole range of arduous activities, there has to be an integrated plan of actions to address each of those in a cohesive manner.

It is also true that not all the shipbreaking yards are equally lacking in the facilities. There are reports in newspapers that speak of considerable improvements in some of the yards in Sitakunda lately. Some of those were visited by senior foreign diplomats who took a positive note of their standards.

Ship-breaking, no doubt, is highly encouraging for Bangladesh, estimated to be worth around US$2.0 billion. While it offers employment to around three hundred thousand workers, it has the proven capacity for supporting a vast array of heavy and light engineering industries. Iron rods and billets that are recycled from ship scraps, believed to be of high quality, meet a major portion of domestic requirement in the construction sector. Old ships cater for 80 per cent of the demand for raw materials in the rerolling mills. Experts are of the view that Bangladesh is a unique place for ship-breaking and ship-recycling as nearly all the products available from dismantled ships are being used locally. As the advanced countries have given up on ship-breaking in view of the high cost of labour and accompanied compliance issues, ship-breaking has all the prospects to thrive in countries like Bangladesh.

This being the reality, it is indeed a matter of high priority that the stakeholders — mainly the government and the ship-breaking firms – put in their best to ensure that improvement in all critical areas are made visible within the shortest possible time.

Source: hellenic shipping news. 8 June 2015

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