It used to be that once a ship reached the end of its life, it was dismantled by cranes and machinery on a salvage dock somewhere in the US or Europe.
That was until a storm ripped through the Bay of Bengal in 1965, leaving a cargo ship beached on the coast of Bangladesh in southern Asia.
The ship’s parts were stripped by locals, and businessmen in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh realised that a ship could be stripped (or ‘broken’) far more cheaply on a beach in Asia than a dry dock in Europe.
Now, ship breaking is one of the few industries to have benefitted from the global recession. As demand for goods drops, the ships that carry those goods become unnecessary.
So many ship owners prefer to sell an empty and ageing ship into an early grave rather than incur its maintenance costs. Add these cargo ships to the pile of cruise liners, freighters and private vessels already lining the Bay of Bengal, and you have a burgeoning industry.
In the ten months to August of this year, Alang, the biggest ship-breaking yard in the world, dismantled 240 ships – up from 163 the year before. In 2006 there were 25 ship breaking plots in the Bay of Bengal. Now, there are 130.
Those extra ships bring income to the 40,000 ship breakers already working, more jobs for the impoverished individuals who migrate to the Bay of Bengal in search of work, and much needed steel for construction in Bangladesh, a country with no iron ore mines of its own.
As every part of the ship is stripped, an estimated one million traders make their livelihood by selling goods gleaned from the ships – everything from light bulbs, cutlery, magazines, plumbing parts, board games, old maps, fridges and even life boats.
But the ship-breaking business has many difficulties. Ships as large as 68,000 tonnes are beached on the sand, and then dissected entirely by hand. There is little regulation – arsenic, mercury, asbestos, poisons from fuel oil or paints and other toxic waste is leaked into the sands and surrounding waters.
Ships are pulled apart with little regard to electrical wiring, fuel tanks are aerated by workers who hand cut holes into the tanks, and sheets of metal are hand cut from the ships and left to fall several metres to the sand and workers below.
Earlier this month, three ship breakers were killed in a gas explosion in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city. Five days earlier, on October 8, three Chittagong ship breakers had been crushed to death by a falling iron plate.
But wretched deaths such as these tell only some of the story; Greenpeace estimates that at one stage there were 365 ship breaker deaths every year, and an untold number of illnesses and injuries caused by the toxic and dangerous environment.
For these reasons, in 1998, the Clinton government banned US government vessels from being scrapped in South Asia. But such action not only stems supply of much-needed steel to Bangladesh, it also removes a source of income for the million or so Indians and Bangladeshis who rely on the ship-breaking industry.
One partial solution is to ensure that ships are cleaned of toxic materials before they depart for the ship breakers of South Asia. Another is to acknowledge that the real cost of a ship extends beyond its period of ownership, and to better regulate the method in which ship owners can dispose of their ships.
For the moment, neither of these options seem likely – and despite the ban, the Independent reports that two US government ships, MV Pvt James Anderson and MV 1st Lt Alex Bonnyman, will be scrapped in South Asia this year.
By Natalya King
Photo/Arkiblog – Ship breaking on one of the world’s longest beaches in Chittagong. Photo by Edward Burtynsky.