The Asahi Shimbun – RIO+20: In South Asia, it is survival that counts… not the environment

(Written by Susumu Yoshida)

14 June 2012 - Half a world away from here, a high-profile U.N. conference will kick off June 20 to discuss ways to create a “green” global economy.

For impoverished countries like Bangladesh, the ramifications could be huge.

A topic that is bound to be raised at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro is whether it is possible to engage in economic activities that can both eradicate poverty but not harm the environment.

For the tens of thousands of Bangladeshis involved in the ship breaking industry, the decisions reached in Brazil might determine their future–and not necessarily, in a way that will help them.

While conference delegates gather in impressive surroundings to thrash out the world’s problems, legions of dirt-poor Bangladeshis will do what they have to everyday to survive: toil away at dangerous jobs for a pittance because they have no other choice.

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A large freighter that has been beached is being broken up for recycling. Its steel body lies split open, exposed to the elements.

Dozens of workers are busy with acetylene torches, showering sparks everywhere.

A huge chunk of steel is being worked on. The workers, scurrying around barefoot, haul heavy chunks of metal on their backs and in their bare hands.

The shoaling beach extends more than 10 kilometers and is located some 30 km north of Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh.

More than 100 sites are set up as yards to demolish large vessels.

Decommissioned ships are run aground and then hauled to the beach with ropes, much as slaves in ancient Egypt moved huge stone blocks to build the pyramids.

The method is called “beaching.”

The surface of the nearby Bay of Bengal is awash with fuel oil. Parts of the beach are thick with oil, and workers, if they don’t watch their step, can sink in the sand up to their knees.

It is estimated that 70 percent of all big ships decommissioned in the world are demolished in either Bangladesh, India or Pakistan.

Ship breaking has been roundly criticized since around 2000 for the damage it causes to the environment, and the lack of safety provisions for workers–who are paid a pittance for putting in 11-hour days of strenuous, dirty and dangerous work.

At the site near Chittagong, Mohammed Jamal Uddin climbed to the deck of a decommissioned vessel and lamented: “My wage is 25 taka (about 25 yen, or 30 U.S. cents) an hour. I work 11 hours a day. So I can get only 300 taka at most, including overtime money.”

Asked why he chose this line of work, the 42-year-old replied: “I have no choice. We have no (other) jobs because there are too many people in Bangladesh.”

The ship breaking business is highly competitive, a situation that is fueled by extremely low labor costs.

Workers are employed on a seasonal basis, or for the several months required to demolish a single vessel.

Demand for demolition fluctuates sharply.

For this reason, operators of ship breaking businesses avoid offering regular employment.

They also cut corners on safety costs and steps to preserve the environment.

Such cost-cutting is possible due to the government’s loose regulations on labor and environmental protection. This only serves to fuel a vicious cycle.

But Nazmul Islam, secretary of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, counters the criticism that operators are sacrificing the environment and safety.

“We are offering helmets and gloves to workers. But they do not want to use them.”

Immediately after I interviewed him, one worker who was caught by steel doors while working died in early May.

According to local news reports, at least 38 workers died on the job during the past 44 months, including the man cited above.

Environmental pollution is another factor.

In 2010, the World Bank estimated that 38,000 tons of asbestos and 24,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) will accumulate in the ship breaking yards in Chittagong in the next 20 years. It also said that a huge volume of hazardous materials will flow out to markets for parts removed from the ships.

An official of the Bangladeshi government’s Ministry of Environment and Forest countered the estimates, calling them excessive. However, the official conceded that the ministry has no data on the issue.

Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury, a professor of sociology at Chittagong University who has conducted on-the-spot research, acknowledged there are a number of problems in the ship demolition industry.

Even so, Chowdhury said the industry was a vital cog in the economy of Bangladesh because it employs tens of thousands of workers.

Besides, Bangladesh has to depend on decommissioned ships for raw materials of steel products because the country has no iron mills.

“The only way to improve the industry is through investment,” he said. “But that will prove difficult if we leave it to the demolition business operators, who tend to see only short-term profits. That is the problem.”

In neighboring India, however, people in the industry have already begun to address the situation.

The world’s largest ship demolition area is located at Alang beach in Gujarat state, north of Mumbai. It has 131 operating yards, which account for about 90 percent of the demolition volume in India, the world’s No. 1 in the industry by volume in 2010.

There, much of the demolition work has been mechanized, giving India a huge advantage over the manual labor that is the hallmark of the work in Bangladesh.

Workers also are provided with more up-to-date equipment.

But the beaching method, which causes oil to spread on the surface of the sea, is also used there. But perhaps, not for long.

Plans are being drawn up to lay concrete on the beach to prevent oil leaking and to construct a facility to dispose of the oil.

The government of Gujarat state, which owns the beach, is working with Japan on details of the project.

The Japanese government is set to provide yen-denominated loans for the project.

Japan’s involvement stems from its 2009 decision to adopt the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, which obliges members to manage hazardous materials appropriately and devise sound methods of disposal.

If the Hong Kong Convention takes effect, it will become impossible to demolish ocean-going ships in facilities other than those that meet certain standards.

Japan is still one of the world’s biggest maritime powers. It had a 21-percent share of newly constructed vessels, based on volume, in 2010. The same year, the volume of ship tonnage effectively owned by Japanese companies amounted to 14 percent on a worldwide basis.

“If we neglect the (environment and safety) issues at ship breaking yards, the yards will cease to exist,” said a source in the Japanese shipping industry.

In Bangladesh, local nongovernment organizations (NGOs) for environmental protection have repeatedly succeeded in getting courts to issue operation suspension orders to ship breaking yard operators since 2009. As a result, ship demolition volume there has decreased drastically.

The Bangladeshi government was compelled to compile regulations in 2011 for the first time. However, few people think the regulations have teeth.

Before and shortly after World War II, Japan was the main industry player. That honor transferred to Taiwan in the 1970s. In and after the 1990s, however, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China have accounted for more than 90 percent of all ship demolition in the world.

The demolition volume has drastically increased since the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008. Ships generally have a lifespan of between 20 and 30 years. The large number of vessels that were constructed in and after the second half of the 1990s will soon be destined for demolition.

But when that happens, there could be a shortage of ship breaking yards.

For the companies in developed countries that construct and operate the vessels, ship demolition is nothing more than disposal of industrial waste. The transfer of hazardous materials across national borders was restricted by the Basel Convention that took effect in 1992.

In the case of ocean-going ships, however, shipowners’ countries are often different from those where the vessels were registered. Besides, the ships usually cross national boundaries, making it difficult to apply the restrictions to those vessels.

The Hong Kong Convention is not without its problems, either.

For example, it has no international inspection system to check demolition facilities.