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When the bow breaks: ship-breaking yards on the coast of India and Bangladesh are notorious for their unsafe conditions, long working hours and miserly pay. Yet Western shipping companies continue to send their condemned vessels to them--and more yards are being created to meet increasing demand. (The ship-breakers).

A SHOWER OF SPARKS SCORCHED THE FACE OF AKBER Jamil. Stunned, he slipped from the twisted wreckage of the huge container ship onto the smoke-choked beach six metres below. The 19-year-old checked his body for serious damage. Then, cigarette still in mouth, quickly rejoined the chanting cutting gangs at his workstation in Chittagong's colossal ship-breaking yard, where the ferrous corpses of ocean-going tankers and liners--each one a sump of toxic waste--are dismantled and sold for scrap.

This is the Bay of Bengal's infamous ship graveyard where half the world's largest vessels come to die, torn apart by the frantic hands of up to 100,000 impoverished Bangladeshi workers. Just 15 years ago this was a 20-kilometre stretch of pristine beach but today it is scarred beyond recognition; an oily, debris-strewn industrial zone where almost 100 ships--potential death traps the height of tower blocks--stand side by side in progressive stages of dissection, spilling their black innards onto the dark tidal flats.

Using little more than muscle power and cooking gas, the workers will tear apart these gigantic behemoths in just six months. Many will be injured, some will die. This is an industry without health and safety regulations. The likes of Akber cut steel plates without eye protection, gloves or boots for between 80p and 1.80 [pounds sterling] a day. Small though the pay is, it is enough to rescue them from the impoverishment of the nearby city and its stinking, polluted shanty towns.

The brutal world of the ship-breaker is repeated across the beaches of neighbouring India, Pakistan, China and Turkey, though it is the coastline between the towns of Bhatiara and Sitakunda to the north of Chittagong that lay claim to the most chaotic and deadly of all. Here, hundreds of workers are thought to have been killed by falling steel plates, fires, explosions, falls and exposure to poisons from fuel oil, lubricants, paints and cargo slop.

Soon the monsoon rains will start and casualties will increase further as workers risk slipping to their death from the colossal vessels. On neighbouring India's vast `breaking beaches' studies show that one out of four workers is expected to contract cancer from toxic exposure.

Yet a series of fresh investigations reveals that Western shipping companies remain heavily involved in the trade, with brokers and ship owners making up to 6million [pounds sterling] profit per scrapped vessel. Every year the number of ships destined for scrap increases--current figures of 600-700 a year are estimated to soar to 3,000 by 2010. In the 1990s vessels smashed for scrap totalled around 15 million dead weight tonnage (dwt) a year. Yet new figures from EA Gibson Shipbrokers, reveal this reached a record 28 million dwt last year--a quarter increase--and is expected to grow similarly during 2002.

Elsewhere concern is mounting over the number of European companies that have failed to offer satisfactory reassurances that their ships have been decontaminated before scrapping. Among five vessels recently sold to Asian ship-breakers is the Nikaia, a 25-year-old bulk sold by Greek company Marmaras Navigation and the River Stream, a chemical tanker owned by Dutch company Vroon, sold for scrap to India for around 720,000 [pounds sterling]. And several weeks ago the Sea Beirut was towed from France and attempted to enter Turkey's notorious ship-breaking yard, Aliaga, with a toxic cargo of asbestos on board.

The sharp increase in trade has sparked an urgent wave of action. World governments discussed the issue at the end of May in Geneva, amid concern that Western companies are contravening the Basel Ban which prohibits the export of toxic wastes from rich countries to poor. The EU has even agreed to examine the feasibility of dismantling ships in Europe, while the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is looking to produce guidelines on `greening' ships.

Ship-breaking activities also pollute the nearby soil, sea and rivers. A report by Norway's environment advisory service and the University of Chittagong discovered that, compared to Norway, Chittagong had 48 times the concentration of toxic PCBs in the soil where Akber plies his dangerous trade.

In Turkey--despite the import of toxic ships for scrap being banned--ship-breaking yards have been caught spewing the most toxic substances humans have ever released into the environment, dioxins, from the illegal burning of ship cables. Sediments taken from Aliaga, 50 kilometres north of Izmir on the Aegean coast, betray an environment polluted with zinc and lead, mineral oil and PCBs. Up to 100 ships are scrapped in Turkey every year with at least half from western European shipping companies seeking to abuse the country's lax approach to its OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) status. Yet it is India that is home to the largest ship-breaking yard of them all--Alang.

As in Chittagong, asbestos here is routinely removed with bare hands; workers torch-cut ship steel into small pieces without adequate safety equipment, while tests show sediments are more contaminated than the most heavily industrialised port areas, despite ship-breaking yards being just 15 years old. Although India has taken steps to improve conditions, a second Alang is on its way, with conditional approval given to a colossal ship-breaking project on Vodarevu beach.

The increase in trade can be partly explained by the increase in the size of the world fleet. In 1960 there were around 15,000 ships with an aggregate dwt of 84 million; just four decades on there were 62,000 ships with an aggregate dwt of 828 million. Another reason is the demise of the oil tanker Erika, which snapped in half three years ago, spewing more than 10,000 tonnes of heavy oil onto the coast of Brittany in France. Following this, the IMO phased out all single-hull oil tankers, meaning an extra 2,200 tankers--with a combined dwt of 175million tonnes--will have to be taken out of service from the start of next year.

And time is almost up for thousands of other huge vessels. Of the 2,900 passenger ships sailing around the world almost half were built before 1980 while more than a quarter of the 4,900 large bulk carriers in use are over 22 years old.

Attention has already turned to several remarkable boats nearing their life's end including the Pacific Princess, the original ship of the long-running US television series The Love Boat. Built in 1971 the ship is still cruising destinations in Africa, India and Bermuda, though it is reported that P&O Cruises in London, the third-largest cruiseline in the world, has sold the Pacific Princess to an Italian investor group and it is chartered until late 2002.

A source from Andrew Weir Shipping explained that shipowners simply sell vessels onto brokers who then strike a deal for them to be scrapped anywhere in the world. He admitted being aware of the conditions in Bangladesh, adding that although it cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to sail a vessel to the breaking beaches of Bangladesh it was still highly lucrative. Another industry source admitted that "most of the brokers selling these ships for scrap are English or operate from New York."

With such deals often made through middlemen, the picture is further obscured by the shipping community's habit of renaming ships prior to their being scrapped--a recent example being the 1974-built Chevron Nagasaki being changed to Enif Voyager before heading to Chinese breakers.

There is no doubt that ship-breaking remains crucial to the economies of vast tracts of Asia, providing a valuable source of domestic steel and spawning ancillary industries that have saved millions from poverty. Consensus, however, is growing that the trade can no longer be tolerated, and greater responsibility is needed by shipping companies to clean vessels before they are sold.

The vast ship-breaking yards of Chittagong and the dangers endured by those like Akber can be viewed as a metaphor for the pivotal struggle of our time--that between the developed and developing world, the rich and the poor.
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Author:Townsend, Mark
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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