Shipbreaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh
Chittagong, a city in southeastern Bangladesh, has – according to our guidebooks – nothing to offer. And indeed: it is a dirty, nasty, big, industrial city with millions of people, hard pressed by poverty and traffic congestions troughout the day. To get here from Dhaka, we have been painfully long on the bus: 10 hours for a distance of 250 km.
What are we here for then? Chittagong is home to the notorious' ship breaking yards. Tankers are pulled on the beach whereafter hordes of Bengali young men undress the mastodons with small hammers. It is a very dangerous job: workplace accidents are common and substances from the ships - including asbestos, heavy metals and lead - cause cancer and premature death. Many workers are from the poorer north, where there is almost no economic activity. How did it come to this situation? Until the early 70s the dismantling of ships was done in dry docks build for this purpose. Environmental contamination was therefore limited.. By rising labor costs and a tightening environmental legislation, the dismantling of ships moved to poorer countries in Asia, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Our goal in Chittagong: visiting the ship breaking yards. We take an auto rickshaw along the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. Along the road, you can buy pieces of ship, and each store seems to have his specialty: pumps, pipes, equipment from the galley, windows, stairways, lifeboats, life jackets, screws. There is a huge crowd: little trucks driving in and out with fresh old stuff. We stop the rickshaw and walk towards the coast.
A little further, we encounter the great gates of the yards, with security guards.They shut the door when they see us. Presumably we are not welcome. Yet we catch a glimpse of what is going on here: in the distance we see the tankers on the coast. They are cut in half, beheaded or undressed. It is a huge. On the deck of the ship, we see little men walking. We see no cranes or heavy equipment.
In the walk back someone shows us a way to the coastline. He takes us to a river that flows into the Bay of Bengal. A fisherman is hauling his nets. A few minutes later, a deal is closed: the angler will be with us to sail the sea so we have a good view of the vessels.The sputtering engine simmers us through the waves. The ship scrapping sad to see us, the laborers swing friendly. They seem totally unprepared for their task: no helmet, no special clothes, no special equipment. The ships themselves, even after service still spew liters of oil, are just standing on the beach with their feet in the water. As far as we can see, there are ships. In total I count to 16 tankers.
We sail through between the hulks. We pass a boat that someone is cutting in half. Our boat takes us past the ship; we look straight into the belly of the beast. On our right side is a small remnant of a ship: the body is cut off, only the bridge remains. Some of the men are waving after us. After a few seconds, the ship breaks just below where we just passed, and plops down with great force into the water. One tiny second, we realize it: we almost died at a ship breaking yard. Or put differently: it's so easy to get into an accident here. So few measures are taken to protect the laborers. So many times death will claim its share of this inhuman practice.
Why are these vessels not dismantled in well-equipped environments? In a dry dock, with limited ecological damage? In a company that takes measures to protect its personnel, where human rights apply? We see some European ships: a Spanish name adorns one of the ships on the beach, along the street with its many shops is the Belgian national flag in front. Our ships are dismantled. Our ships kill people here. We also are involved.
Such work conditions – not really environmentally sustainable - are no longer acceptable in a global economy that evangelizes modernization, efficiency gains and innovation. The dismantling of ships, a logical consequence of shipping, is the responsibility of the shipping companies and.They need to invest massively in getting the breaking done in a more sustainable way. If the goal for the 21st century is a sustainable world economy, then we will also need solutions for these dirty industries.
We pay the agreed sum to the fisherman, and walk back. It is impossible to visit a yard. The control is strict, individual companies do not want us to come in. "You need a permission from a higher authority," we are told. "Where can we get permission?" I ask. The reply is firm: "Nowhere."
We return to the highway. Meanwhile the sun burns us to pieces (the temperature rose to 34°). The 'ship breakers' work quietly.
Chittagong. A place where the world should be ashamed for.