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Bangladesh: The dirty beach where old ships come to die

On an unforgiving, dirty beach at the outskirts of Chittagong, Bangladesh, thousands of men tear old ships apart by the use of sledgehammers and their own hands. This is the world's largest ship-breaking beach – a place the shipping companies of the industrialized world does not want you to know about.

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CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH — An man who appears to be at least 60, but might not be older than 45, walks slowly between bent steel plates and mud carrying a bucket. Dressed in rags, he stops and smiles to the camera.

Behind him on the dry sea bed sits empty ship’s hulls, driven up there in full speed from the Bay of Bengal, making their last journey before being scrapped. [pullquote]…this is the dirty backside of global trade.[/pullquote]

This is the Chittagong Ship Breaking Beach, in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh. It is the poor country’s most important way of getting its hands on iron and other construction materials, for which Bangladesh is in bad need.

Tens, maybe hundreds, of scrap firms crowd along the beach. International bans on single-hull oil tankers have made the industry flourish.

But although income from scrapping is much-needed, this is at the same time the dirty backside of global trade and sea transports. Few shipping companies like to admit selling off old ships to these scrap recycling firms, instead of going through the troubles – and take the costs – of scrapping them in a more environmentally better and safer way.

ship breaking in chittagong

Wrecks at Chittagong viewed from satellite.

The ground is filled with heavy metals, investigations have shown, and the vegetation on the beach that once protected the low land from floods is long gone.

 

Journalists are not held in high regard here. We meet our contact at a hotel in downtown Chittagong, and heads towards the beach in a tuk-tuk taxi, 20 minutes or so away. I have to wait in the vehicle while the young man, who used to work here and whose relative operates one of the yards, talks to several men at closed gates. No one wants to let the press in. “Don’t show your camera Put it in your bag”, he whispers.

ship breaking in chittagong

The ship-breaking yard of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Photo: Traveling Reporter

Finally, at our third stop, we get lucky. I enter the gate where a few men stand post. There are some low warehouse-like buildings and a dirt road that leads towards the seaside. The span of the tide here is six meters from its highest to its lowest point, making this part of the world ideal for scrapping ships. Run them aground at high tide, tear them apart at low. As we make our way towards the water, the horizon opens up.

“Now it’s ok to take photos”, my contact says.

 

[pullquote]Being one of the world’s poorest countries, though, many workers here seem to appreciate the relatively good pay higher than a safe working environment.[/pullquote]It is a staggering sight. We count to about twenty ships, all in different stages of demolition. After being beached, the ships are taken apart by hand. These young boys make a good salary, but the dangers are obvious. Suddenly, a bang, the sound of an explosion, rolls over the area. No one seems to care. It is not uncommon that worker’s blowtorches, used to cut steel plates apart, create explosions as flames come in contact with a gas-filled compartment of an old oil tanker.

Apart from blowtorches and other basic tools, the only equipment here for this hard labor is a huge diesel-driven winch, used to drag huge steel parts towards land. Another Westerner who went to Chittagong to try to buy an old life boat – of which there are hundreds lying around – claims later having seen forklifts and machinery at other yards.

But there is no doubt that this is a tough job. Being one of the world’s poorest countries, though, many workers here seem to appreciate the relatively good pay higher than a safe working environment.

ship breaking chittagong in bangladesh

A steel block is being towed by a winch.

ship breaking chittagong in bangladesh

The traveling reporter at Chittagong’s ship-breaking beach. Photo: TravelingReporter.com

 

GALLERY Chittagong Ship Breaking

 

The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.