Kalam’s parents, brother, sister and young nephew and niece were among the 138,000 people killed that May when a tidal surge from the force-five cyclone destroyed his family’s house and the tiny fishing village they called home.
Those who survived — including Kalam and his wife — owe their lives to the protection provided by the trees, which is why they are concerned about the deforestation they’re witnessing around them.
“In 1991 we survived, but now we are surrounded by ship-breaking yards, there are hardly any trees left,” Kalam said.
“I hung onto that coconut tree for dear life. The waves were so strong they ripped my clothes off.”
In just two decades, Sitakundu beach has been transformed from a quiet, leafy shoreline into a sprawling industrial hub, home to one of Bangladesh’s largest, most profitable and most controversial industries: ship-breaking.
Thirty percent of the world’s condemned ships are recycled in Bangladesh, and the industry creates tens of thousands of jobs and provides three-quarters of the country’s steel — but at a serious environmental cost.
“More than 40,000 big trees were felled in the last six months to clear the way for new ship-breaking yards,” Mohammad Ali Shaheen, the Bangladesh head of the Platform on Ship-breaking lobby group, told AFP.
“Not only are the yards dumping toxic waste on the coast, they are also clearing forests that have been painstakingly planted and nurtured to work as natural barriers to cyclones.”
Local environmentalists say Bangladesh is on the frontline of climate change and that rampant deforestation, particularly by ship-breaking yards, is making things worse.
In the past five years, Bangladesh has been hit by two cyclones which left 5,000 people dead, displacedmillions and caused three billion dollars worth of damage.
“There is now hardly any forest left along a more than 20-kilometre (12-mile) stretch of Sitakundu coast,” said professor Mohammad Kamal Hossain, a forestry expert at Chittagong University.
“The ship-breakers have gobbled up most of the plantations, showing scant regard to the government’s environmental laws.”
Felling old growth forests is illegal in Bangladesh but laws are not enforced as ship-breaking is a billion dollar industry and yards owners are some of the country’s top business tycoons, he said.
Ships broken up in Bangladesh also routinely contain materials like asbestos, banned in many countries.
The government’s recent attempt to impose strict environmental standards on the industry ended with an about-face within three months after devastating strikes threatened the country’s steel industry.
The proposed law, which required ships to be certified by the selling nation’s environmental authorities, was amended to allow yards to bring in ships on their own declarations that the vessels are free from toxic materials.
But the 100 shipyards in Bangladesh — up from just 36 in 2008, with all the new arrivals on the Sitakundu coast — are damaging the environment in more ways than just through these toxic chemicals.
“Thanks to these ship-breakers, poor villages along the coast now have practically no natural protection against cyclones. If a major cyclone like Sidr hits, I am sure there will be hundreds of thousands of deaths,” Hossain said.
Cyclone Sidr, which had wind speeds of up to 240 kilometres (150 miles) per hour, hit Bangladesh’s southwestern coast in November 2007, leaving at least 4,000 dead and millions homeless.
Experts said Sidr’s toll was far lower than the 1991 cyclone as the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, stood in the path and bore the brunt of the storm.
“The wind speed of the cyclone of 1991 (which hit the southeast coast) was far less than that of Sidr. Yet its death toll was 35 times more,” Hossain said.
Jafar Alam, president of Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association — a powerful industry group — admits that some shipyards have cleared forests.
“But they are not our members. They acted individually,” Alam said, adding that his association had promised to help the government take action against ship-breakers who illegally encroach on forest land.
Addressing attacks on the industry regularly offered by groups like the NGO Platform on Ship-breaking, he told AFP that such organisations were “the lackies of foreign governments talking nonsense”.
“There were no major forests where we set up our scrapyards. There is no question of us causing environmental damages,” said Alam, whose association oversaw more than 80 percent of the 200 ships
broken last year in Sitakundu.”We are an important industry. We employ tens of thousands of people and directly and indirectly our worth is around three billion dollars,” he said.
“There are more areas we are planning to set up yards as business is really booming.”
Such talk sends shivers down Jyotindra Jaldash’s spine. The 70-year-old fisherman who lives in a village along Sitakundu coast said watching his childhood home transform into a shipyard has turned him into a cynic.
“When the ships first arrived here, I liked the look of them when they were moored. But now they are everywhere. They have killed all the fish, they have cut the forests, and soon, they will drive us all out,” he said.