Near the port city of Chittagong in Bangladesh, lies one of the largest ship-breaking yards in the world. It stretches for 18 km along the coast on the Bay of Bengal where more than 200,000 Bangladeshis break down up to 100 ships a year. Working under hazardous conditions, workers rip apart ships with their bare hands and a blowtorch to assist, dissecting the ship bolt by bolt, rivet by rivet. Every piece of metal worth salvaging is carried on to waiting trucks in the shoreline to be carried away to furnaces where it will be melted down and fashioned into steel rods. The steel accounts for half of all the steel in Bangladesh.
The industry, which employs thousands and supplies Bangladesh with most of its steel, began with a cyclone in 1960, when a violent storm left a Greek cargo ship stranded on the shores of Sitakunda in Chittagong. The ship could not be refloated and so remained there for several years. In 1965, Chittagong Steel House bought the ship and with the help of locals had it scrapped. The process took years but the the cheap and resilient labor force, coupled with flat beaches ushered in the start of a new industry for Bangladesh.
The industry grew steadily through the 1980s and, by the middle of the 1990s, the country ranked number two in the world by tonnage scrapped. In 2008, there were 26 shipbreaking yards in the area, and in 2009 there were 40. From 2004 to 2008, the area was the largest shipbreaking yard in the world.
The process begins after a ship-breaker acquires vessels from an international broker who deals in decommissioned ships. A captain who specializes in beaching large craft is hired to deliver it to the breaker’s yard. Once the ship is mired in the mud, its liquids are siphoned out, including any remaining diesel fuel, engine oil, and firefighting chemicals, which are resold. Then the machinery and fittings are stripped. Everything is removed and sold to salvage dealers where they are turned into construction materials, girders, metal sheets and furniture. Nothing goes to waste - from enormous engines, batteries, generators, and miles of copper wiring to the crew bunks, portholes, lifeboats, sinks, toilets, and electronic dials on the bridge.
After the ship has been reduced to a steel hulk, swarms of laborers from the poorest parts of Bangladesh use acetylene torches to slice the carcass into pieces. These are hauled off the beach by teams of loaders, then melted down and rolled into rebar for use in construction.
Ship-breaking is a profitable business in Chittagong. In three to four months the average ship in Bangladeshi yards returns roughly a one-million-dollar profit on an investment of five million, compared to less than $200,000 profit in Pakistan. Cheap labor and poor safety standards allows the profit margin to be kept high.
The workers themselves earn about four dollars per day. In return, they inhale noxious fumes and are vulnerable to electrocution, falling debris and explosions of leftover gas. Many workers have deep, jagged scars, while some have fingers missing and a few are blind in one eye.
Satellite picture showing a part of Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard.
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