The emergence of shipbreaking as an industry in the country decades ago has offered many positive and negative upshots. While the spectacular rise of the industry stirred by massive manual activities is highly risk-prone and environmentally degrading, its contribution in terms of employment and feeding the country's booming steel and re-rolling mills can hardly be exaggerated.
Bangladesh currently ranks number one as the highest importer of scrap ships, and local shipbreakers dismantle half of the world's discarded ships. The total number of ships imported for scraping in 2021 was 254, according to a news story published in this newspaper. In 2020, the country imported 144 scrapped ships, down from 236 imported in 2019. However, last year (2021) saw a considerable rise, and with import shooting up, more than eight million tonnes of metals were dismantled. Presently, there are 160 shipyards in the country of which 70-80 are in operation. More than 300 re-rolling mills are using ship scraps as their raw materials while the shipbreaking industry meets more than 60 per cent of the raw materials for local steel industry.
The economic value of ship scrapping cannot be questioned, but there are serious concerns over safety and environmental hazards. Given the state of things in the country's shipbreaking yards, including among others the accidents and deaths due to unsafe conditions, one has to admit that the situation, neglected for decades without any meaningful improvement in work conditions, has by now become too heavy a burden to shoulder. There were repeated moves from various quarters including international bodies and rights groups to raise the standard of work culture at the shipbreaking yards. The media and the NGOs have been blaming state regulators -- including the department of environment and the ministries of shipping and labour -- for failing to protect coastal ecosystems and to monitor these companies' compliance with safety precautions. Occasionally, some stern actions too were taken by the law enforces as was seen in the eviction of two breaking yards which were set up by destroying coastal forest in Sitakunda, Chittagong years ago.
There are threats too from potential sources of supply, such as the Norwegian Ship Owners' Association (NSA), not to allow recycling of their ships in Bangladesh, unless it is done in keeping with the Hong Kong International Convention for 'Safe and Environmentally Sound' recycling method. The Norwegian stand appears to be further reinforced by a reported move of the European Union, which accounts for 20 per cent of the total scrap vessels sold around the world, to ban export of scrap ships to Bangladesh and few other neighbouring countries.
These, no doubt, are grave signals to reckon with, if the country is to see its shipbreaking industry continue and thrive given the prospects. The concerns are not just expressions of anxiety as they used to be in the past, but are now clearly action-driven meant to cause a drastic cut in the availability of scrap vessels to be dismantled for recycling.
While one finds a sorry picture of the shipbreaking yards in the country, it is to be admitted that not all the shipbreaking yards are equally lacking in the facilities. There are reports in newspapers that speak of considerable improvement in some of the yards in Sitakunda lately. Some of which were visited by senior foreign diplomats who hailed the standards in those as commendable.
Shipbreaking, no doubt, is a highly encouraging sector for Bangladesh, estimated to be worth around US$2.0 billion. While it offers employment to around three hundred thousand workers, it has the proven capacity of supporting a vast array of heavy and light engineering industries. Iron rods and billets recycled from ship scraps, believed to be of high quality, meet a major portion of domestic requirement in the construction sector. Old ships meet 80 per cent of the demand for raw materials of the rerolling mills. Experts have opined that Bangladesh is a unique place for shipbreaking and ship-recycling as nearly all the products available from dismantled ships are being used locally. Moreover, as the advanced countries have stopped breaking ships because of the high cost of labour and accompanying compliance issues, the industry has all the prospects to thrive in countries like Bangladesh. It is thus of critical importance for those directly associated with the sector to make sure that the country is well poised to reap the gains from the opportunities offered by it. This can only be done if the preparation is equal to the challenges.
Of late, however, there has been some noticeable progress in the works undertaken for ensuring safe working environment of the shipbreaking yards as well as for skill enhancement of workers. The initiatives taken by the Shipbreakers Association has been reinforced by a consortium of the IMO and NORAD, established to bring substantial improvement in these areas. A NORAD-funded project Safe and Environmentally Sound Ship-recycling in Bangladesh is also under implementation. The country's shipbreakers are now at one to collectively work towards improving the situation. It is becoming clear, though belatedly, that clean and hazard-free shipyards not only radically improve safety standard for workers but also lead to manifold expansion of the industry.
This being the reality, it is indeed a matter of high priority that the stakeholders -- mainly the government and the shipbreaking firms -- put in their best to ensure that improvement in all critical areas are made visible within the shortest possible time.