Where Ships Go to Die

In the 1970’s ship breaking was done in docks in Europe and the United States. It was a highly mechanised industrial operation. But as countries grew more conscious of environmental standards, and health and safety measures, costs of scrapping began to escalate. So where could ship owners go so that their profit margins would not be eroded?

In the 1980s enterprising businessmen in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan seized the initiative with a simple, transforming idea: to break a ship they did not need expensive docks and tools; they could just wreck the thing — drive the ship up onto a beach as they might a fishing boat, and tear it apart by hand.

About 90% of the ship breaking industry moved to Asian countries, to India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and Turkey, poorer nations with lax environmental and safety standards. Every year 600-700 sea vessels are brought to the once pristine beaches of Asia for scrapping. In India most of the ships are beached at Alang, in Gujarat, on the West Coast of India. The shipyards at Alang recycle about 50% of the ships salvaged in the world. The yards are located on the Gulf of Khambat, 50 kilometres southeast of Bhavnagar. After the beaching of the MV Kota Tenjong in 1983, this once beautiful beach has become the world’s leading shipbreaking yard.

Alang Ship Breaking Beach

Alang coastline
Satellite images of the Gujarat coastline

Ships destined for shipbreaking are “wastes” as defined by the Basel Convention, and in most cases are likely to contain hazardous substances to an extent rendering such ships “hazardous waste” under the Convention. When such ships destined for shipbreaking involve a transboundary movement, i.e., move from an area under the national jurisdiction of one state to or through an area under the national jurisdiction of another state, they are subject to the Basel Convention (and other applicable regional hazardous waste trade regimes). In the case that such ships move from an OECD country to a non-OECD country, the Basel ban applies and the movement is prohibited. Furthermore, under the Basel Convention, a transboundary movement from any state to any of the shipbreaking operations in non-OECD countries, e.g., India, is prohibited because, due to the conditions in the shipbreaking yards, it would not constitute “environmentally sound management” as required by the Convention.

Beaches where ship breaking happens in Asia, are now graveyards littered with machinery parts, oil rags and leaking barrels, the air poisoned by open fires, the land and surrounding water contaminated by asbestos, heavy metals, dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants.

In Alang, you can see women carrying asbestos waste on their heads and dumping it in the sea. Workers dismantle the ships with their bare hands. Almost one out of every three workers suffers from cancer making ship-breaking one of the deadliest industries in the world. Even their sleeping quarters are not free from danger. Many are also injured or killed by suffocation or explosion related mishaps. The saddest part is that the workers are mostly temporary and are not covered under any labour benefits. But for the workers the choice is simple- exploitation is better than starvation. (watch Greenpeace video on shipbreaking in India)

It’s a recycling yard and an environmental disaster. The situation is set to get worse, 200 single hulled oil tankers need to be disposed of by 2015.

On the other hand, without shipbreaking at least one million people in India would go hungry. Aside from those employed as shipbreakers, the ships that are beached along the shores of Alang bring money to those who sell the scrap metal, work in steel mills, drive the trucks that deliver the metal, and resell any of the valuables found on the ships. This is their gold rush.

Ship breaking imagesThe BIG BREAKChittagong Ship Breaking picturesGreenpeace

sources: Greenpeace, Wikipedia, BBC News, Find Articles, SSPC, Basel Action Network


  • The Pros and Cons of Using LNG to Power Tugboats

    The maritime industry is undergoing a significant transformation, with growing emphasis on sustainability and reducing environmental impact. Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) has emerged as a promising alternative to traditional marine […]

  • A Thirsty Canal: The Ongoing Struggle with Drought in Panama

    The Panama Canal, a monumental engineering feat connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, faces a formidable adversary: drought. As climate change exacerbates water scarcity issues globally, the canal’s reliance on […]