The deathtrap that is the Gadani ship-breaking yard

Published: January 13, 2020
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Pakistani shipyard worker pulls on a wire attached to a motor that will help peel away part of the outer structure of a beached vessel. PHOTO: GETTY

The country’s solitary ship-breaking yard is located at Gadani, which is roughly 50 kilometres away from Karachi. It is alleged that Gadani is the world’s third largest ship-breaking yard after the Alang-Sosiya yard in India and the Chittagong yard located in Bangladesh. Ships from all over the world come here to be scrapped and sold once they are past their prime and many of these ships bear the flags of European nations. For instance, Germany and Greece were the countries that dumped the most amount of vessels at Gadani in 2016. According to the 2017 Annual Report by NGO Shipbreaking Platform, an organisation which  campaigns for clean and safe ship recycling, Pakistan’s Gadani ship-breaking yard received 107 ships in 2017. 

Ships which are brought to the shores of Gadani are often rickety, dilapidated and perilous to operate on. However, apart from their structural inadequacies, they also pose another dangerous challenge and that is the hazardous waste such as toxic sludge, flammable fuel, oil remnants and gas used to power defunct equipment. Not only does exposure to such waste increase the risk of developing serious health problems, it can also prove to be deadly, as exemplified by the Gaddani tragedy on November 1, 2016, in which an explosion killed at least 14 workers and injured several others. The cause of the explosion was a large gas cylinder located inside the hull. The following month, a fire broke out on a liquid petroleum gas (LPG) carrier at a time when at least a 100 workers were on board the vessel. Thankfully, there were no reported casualties this time around. Given the occurrence of such incidents, workers at the yard continue to demand that a comprehensive state policy be put into place in order to address their concerns. However, this does beg the question: are there no laws in place which can prevent or at least reduce the hazardous conditions the workers at the Gadani ship-breaking yard face?

Perhaps the answer lies in the ‘Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal’. Pakistan is a signatory to this convention that came into force in 1992. The convention defines certain materials as hazardous and prevents their export to developing countries where safety protocols are either insufficient or non-existent, which results in the implementation of cheap, but dangerous disposal practices. Additionally, the Basel Ban Amendment of 1995 bans total export of hazardous waste from the members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where most ships come from for the non-OECD countries such as Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the Basel convention, which would go a long way in helping the workers of Gadani, has not yet been implemented as yet by the federation. However, the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1997 specifies in Section 31 that the federal government can make rules for implementing provisions of international agreements, including the Basel Convention which is included in the schedule at the end of the act. Furthermore, according to section 13 of the 1997 act,

“No person shall import hazardous waste to Pakistan and its territorial waters, exclusive economic zone and historic waters.”

It is also important to mention that the Import Policy Order 2009-10, inter-alia, also bans the import of hazardous waste as defined and classified in the Basel convention, except when such imports are specifically authorised by the government of Pakistan.

One can be forgiven for being confused as to how this applies to the vessels themselves. After all, one would assume that there is a difference between hazardous waste and a shipping vessel. However, according to international waste shipment law, it is possible for an entire ship to be classified as waste in accordance with Article 2 of the Basel Convention. By extension, this also applies to ships sent for dismantling. Seeing as to how the Basel convention’s definition of waste is recognised by Pakistan via the aforementioned import policy order, it is clear that allowing ships that are potential hazards is not allowed by either the import policy order or the EPA 1997.

Therefore, it is imperative that the government keeps a closer watch on the types of vessels being brought into the Gadani ship-breaking yard.  Granted, a ban on the dismantling of tankers was imposed in 2017 following the 2016 tragedy. However, there is a distinct lack of protective mechanisms and protocols in place, which means that the ship-breaking yard will continue to suffer from various health and safety risks. Apart from the human toll, the environment is also greatly affected by unsafe breaking practices. Oil spills from oil tankers, air pollution, water pollution and biodiversity loss are some of the numerous side effects the ship dismantling industry has to offer.

Consequently, India has been better at caring for its workers and environment in this regard. India’s Alang ship-breaking yard, which garners roughly 30% of all ship-breaking activity worldwide, provides a far safer work environment than its South Asian counterparts. In fact, with the introduction of the Recycling of Ships Act 2019, India will ratify the Hong Kong Convention which might allow it to attract up to 60% of the global ship-breaking business.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s government has announced a new ship-breaking yard at Gwadar, failing to realise that the key to attracting more business is not introducing a new yard but improving the safety mechanisms of the existing one. Until the government starts paying due credence to international standards and protocols of safety, Gadani will continue to be a death trap for its workers.

Ahmed Bilal Rathore

Ahmed Rathore

The writer is currently completing his bachelor's degree in International Relations at the National Defence University (NDU).

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.