Are toxic ships harming India’s waters ?

Marine transportation handles up to 90% of world trade and container ships help move cargo, cruise ships carry millions of passengers and ferries provide optimum options for commuting and help reduce road congestion. The number of ships in the world exceed 50,000 and general cargo ships account for a third of the world’s merchant fleet.

The ‘cradle to grave’ cycle of ships is long and complex : New ships require detailed planning and design, financing of ships is expensive , ship building and assembly takes several months and finally the launching of the ship and its operations involves strict adherence to environment regulations and a sophisticated process involving large crews and latest technologies.

What happens when ships spend around 25-30 years in service and they become too expensive to be maintained and repaired ? The answer is ship breaking and/or ship re-cycling . Covid-19 brought the cruise industry to its knees and resulted in 34 ships being scrapped off in 2020 and many of the world’s biggest cruise lines filed for bankruptcy.

Shipbreaking process :

A grim fact : Only a fraction of the world’s end-of-life ships are handled in a safe and clean manner . More than 70% of the world’s obsolete ships land in South Asia : India, Pakistan, Bangladesh , China and Turkey are the main destinations for end-of-life ships. As the name suggests , shipbreaking is a process where workers use tools and machinery to dismantle ships and break it down piece by piece. Ships are pulled onto the beach , any remaining fuel is emptied, and interior fixtures, furnishings and other salvageable items are removed for resale before shipbreakers deconstruct the vessels for scrap.

What role does Alang in Gujarat play as a global ship breaking and recycling facility ?

Alang is a coastal town situated on the Gujarat coastline and is currently the world’s largest ship graveyard. Alang’s beachfront location is ideal for shipbreaking. Tides are heavy there, and the natural slope of the beach makes it easy for a ship to be hauled to the shore. Alang shipyard dismantled 239 ships in 2019 .

Why are ships considered toxic ?

As per the International Labor Organization, Ship breaking is amongst the most dangerous of occupations, with unacceptably high levels of fatalities, injuries, and work-related diseases.When it is time to dismantle ships , the various hazardous materials within the structure of the ship are toxic.

Asbestos , Heavy Metals , Mineral Oils :

Asbestos is one of the most common and most hazardous materials found onboard ships. Asbestos is used, particularly in engine rooms for thermal insulation and when broken down, remains as suspended air particles for long periods. When inhaled, the fibers can lead to fatal diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, the symptoms of which are not apparent for many years.

Heavy metals like Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Zinc, and copper can be found as paints, coating, insulation, batteries, and electrical units in ships. Exposure to Lead affects the nervous system, and impairs hearing, vision, and muscle coordination. Toxic oil fumes released by torch-cutting equipment have also resulted in explosions onsite.

Bilge and Ballast water :

Bilge and Ballast are pump systems that are used to drain out water and oils in the lower most portion of a ship deck in the engine room. When draining out the ship oil, cargo residues, arsenic, copper, chromium etc. are pumped out directly into the ocean directly impacting the marine ecosystem. Untreated ballast water from ships also transmits parasites and potentially invasive alien species of predators that can destroy marine life.

Why are Alang’s shipyards picking up this work ?

Recycling is big money :

The real reasons why huge ships end up on the beaches of Alang are their steel hulls and frames. Steel is where the real profits are made. Steel scraps from the broken down ships are recycled and Alang helps generate around $2 Billion annually in revenue .

The road to Alang is lined with shops and warehouses selling items that come from ships that used to sail across oceans: oak desks, faux crystal chandeliers, life vests and lifeboats, ropes, electric cables and switches, leather chairs, paintings, giant generators and motors – just about anything you can name.

Employment opportunities :

Ship recycling industry is labor intensive and Alang provides job opportunities to around 25,000 workers hailing from nearby states of Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Despite precarious working conditions and exposure to hazardous chemicals, the availability of migrant workers willing to work long hours for daily wages keeps the industry going.

Does the ‘Polluter pays’ principle work ?

International maritime laws for ecologically sustainable development was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between countries. As per the ‘polluter pays’ principle, a country must not allow the export of a ship containing hazardous materials if it suspects that the waste will not be properly dealt with by the ship-breaking country. Sadly, the track records of the developed countries seem poor and the polluter does not pay , but dumps the ship.

Who are the global dumper countries ?  In 2019 , the Top 3 countries that dumped their ships were UAE with 45 ships , Greece with 40 and USA with 29 ships , not to forget Singapore, Japan and South Korea discarding their older ships to the beaches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

‘Green’ Ship Re-cycling today :

True ship recycling stands in deep contrast to how most ships are broken today. The solution to transform dirty and dangerous shipbreaking to sustainable ship recycling will require ship owners to sell their ships to yards that invest in the safety and environmental standards of their operations. 

Moving shipbreaking off beaches and onto dry-docks in regions with capacity to store and treat oily and hazardous wastes is essential thereby guaranteeing the safety of workers with zero dumping of waste into the ocean.

Unfortunately , it is extremely easy for ship owners to circumvent existing laws that aim at protecting vulnerable communities and the environment from the dumping of toxic waste.

Responsible ship recycling at Alang(Credit : Alang Info)

In conclusion, Shipyards like Alang in Gujarat are ensuring mandatory safety standards , personal protective equipment(PPE), fire protection measures , appropriate emergency response, rescue and first-aid service, extensive training process and working with responsible ship owners to ensure international maritime laws and ship recycling policies are met. Proper due diligence when choosing business partners is essential and shipping corporations have an obligation to ensure that their business practices do not cause harm to people and the environment.

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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