(Written by Morshed Ali Khan)
10 October 2011 – Although the Sitakunda ship breaking yards in Chittagong continue to wreak havoc on the environment, the government nonetheless plans to allow new yards on the bank of the Baleshwar river in Patharghata upazila of Barguna district.
A team of top officials from different departments, led by the additional secretary of the industries ministry, recently visited the area and initially earmarked 52 acres of land for setting up new ship breaking yards — an industry categorised red by the Department of Environment, implying its highly hazardous nature.
“It is the prime minister’s wish to set up the industry there and we have started the groundwork,” said ABM Khorshed, additional secretary of the Ministry of Industries. “We have found the area suitable for ship breaking, and we are preparing a report which will be sent to the Prime Minister’s Office within a week or two,” he added.
Khorshed said the team would need to collect local maps and check the depth of the Baleshwar river at its confluence with the Bay of Bengal.
The five-member team that visited the area included the chief engineer of the Directorate of Shipping, managing director of Chittagong Dry Dock, director, technical, of Steel & Engineering Corporation, and a representative of Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association.
Ship breaking yards in Sitakunda continue to operate in unregulated fashion, and in the most rudimentary ways. Every end-of-life ship is 25 to 30 years old, and contains highly hazardous substances such as asbestos, PCB, PVC and lubricants.
The Sitakunda ship breaking yards have heavily polluted the land and air, as well as the bay, where fish species have been wiped out.
Hundreds of people working in the yards, almost totally unprotected owing to an absence of safety gear, are exposed to toxins and fatal accidents.
Rizwana Hasan of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association has come down hard on the plan. As she says, “When the government has failed to regulate the existing ship breaking industries in Sitakunda, the expansion of this industry in another ecologically sensitive coastal area by the Sundarbans is totally unacceptable.”
“Does the government want to pollute the coastal eco-system and destroy the coastal forests? Has it not learnt from the polluted beaches, disappearing mangroves and heavily contaminated land and water of Sitakunda?” she asked.
Ronald Halder, a bird specialist and nature conservationist, said the Baleshwar river is the primary fishing zone for thousands of people in the area, and the largest in the country, and jeopardising the river will be a disaster for millions.
“Moreover, the Sundarbans is near. Such a hazardous industry will threaten the entire eco-system there,” he added.
Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and China are the top scrap ship importers of the world.
Due to a lack of regulations, Bangladesh has become an international scrap ship dumping ground.
If scrap ships continue to arrive at the current rate, the country within the next 20 years will be left with 79,000 tons of asbestos and 2,70,000 tons of polychlorinated bi-phenyl, both of which are non-recyclable hazardous wastes.