Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ship Unshape

They say that when elephants grow old and know they are about to die they head towards a secret place known to all elephants where they can pass away in peace: the Elephants' Graveyard. For ships there is a similar place, though it's not much of a secret as it is some 20km north of Bangladesh's second city, Chittagong. When the world's maritime behemoths, tankers and container ships, reach the end of their serviceable lifespan they make one last voyage to the Bay of Bengal and, at high tide, sail full steam onto the (once sandy, but now impregnated with oil) beach where they are stuck, high and dry, to be pulled apart for scrap by thousands of workers armed only with screwdrivers and blowtorches. Welcome to the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong.

This was the one and only thing that I knew and wanted to see in Bangladesh, ever since reading an article, and seeing the accompanying pictures, in a magazine about 10 years ago, and it did not disappoint. You can tell you're in the vicinity of the yards as you drive along the coastal road that joins Chittagong to Dhaka. During the shipbreaking everything of value (and a lot that isn't) is stripped out of the vessels to be recycled and reused. So the road is lined with shops with salvage flotsam, where you can get anything you'll ever need, much that you never will, and stuff you cannot even begin comprehending the original uses for, with signs in Chinese: cutlery, desk lamps, lifejackets, sofas, toilets, plates, transformers, lifeboats, doorhandles (doors optional), foghorns, bits of rope, cabinets, bogroll holders, anchors, bleach, radios, generators, kitchen sinks, TVs, stoves, ships' steering consoles (I'd like to meet the guy that buys that one), coat hangers, urinals, ballast tanks, porthole windows, wire, shower heads and much more besides (all of these things I actually did see).

The entire beachfront, for a distance of at least 5km, is taken up by the yards, each individual one several hundred metres long and belonging to a different company. High walls and surly gatemen protect the yards from landward invaders and initially I was rebuffed from a couple of yards. At one yard I was even physically thrown out (perhaps I overdid my demanding foreigner spiel that time). But I manage to find a way to weasel my way in in the end. There was a sewage pipe that let out onto the beach that led from a village and passed between two neighbouring yards through common land. Once on the beach it was possible to get to the yards from their exposed, seaside underbellies. In this manner I was able to walk from one yard to the next without too much bother, though I made sure to stay clear of the gates and offices (and just in case I have already perfected my bumbling foreigner routine by now to be able to get out of most situations). The sight that finally greeted me was worth all the trouble and more. Along the 2km of beach I explored there were perhaps a dozen container ships, each of them perhaps 200m long (at least originally, as some of them were already in advanced stages of break up). Occasional rumbles of thunder from within the leviathan carcasses would indicate the tearing off of another steel bone. I managed to traverse the muddy miasma that surrounds the stranded monsters (made up of sand, oil and plenty of chemicals with long names that probably aren't much of a boon to your health) and clambered into the eviscerated bowels of a particularly imposing hulk. The workers were quite happy to see me as I was a welcome break from the monotony of their work and I was quickly bombarded by numerous grammatically incorrect variations on "what country?" They were quite happy to let me wander around the ship and said I could go where I liked, but when they discovered I was half way up the ladder to the deck, some 50m above, they became a bit worried and cajoled me down with cries of "no no! problem!" Most of the work, however, was going on further up the shore where men (though there were also quite a number of teenage kids, which is probably one of the reasons the yard owners are loathe to have foreigners prowling around their premises, as they have not received particularly good press from NGOs such as Greenpeace) with blowtorches would cut large steel sheets into smaller, more manageable sizes. These would then be hauled by teams of men and loaded onto trucks, ready to be transported to the local industries.

After several hours of wandering along the beach, clambering over piles of scrap, dodging the heaps of asbestos and trying not to get up to my knees in toxic ooze, I headed back to Chittagong, tired but elated. This was my main raison d'ĂȘtre for coming to Bangladesh and the experience had far exceeded expectations. There are of course many serious arguments against the shipbreaking industry in developing countries: the pollution, the exploitation of the workers and the poor health and safety record to name but a few. There is also a need for the recycling of useful raw materials, though hopefully with more respect for people and the environment. Hopefully that can be soon achieved so that we tourists can have an easier time of visiting these incredible sites where man does battle with his own creation.

P.S. For those of you who are interested Petit and Petite's blog followed the recent saga of the French warship Clemenceau which was being sent to shipbreaking yards in India, but was eventually turned back due to the public outcry over the large quantities of asbestos still on board. The whole story is followed closely with links to news articles in India and France (the blog is in French though).

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