I love Google Earth. I can spend unlimited amounts of time just exploring odd regions of the earth I've never visited or familiar places from unfamiliar perspectives. The aerial imagery makes me feel like a spy investigating the machinations of some foreign power.
Inspired by this article in the Spiegel today (there is a far less informative English version with a different set of photos here), I decided to take a peek at Bangladesh today and, as expected, found this:
What you see above is probably one of the least known facets of globalization. The screen capture above shows a stretch of beach along the northwest side of Chittagong which, apparently, for the past 35 years, at least, has been the world's primary site for the dismantling of large oceangoing vessels, including oil tankers. You can see various beached large cargo vessels in different states of dismantling. Some are still largely intact, while of others only one segment of the hull is left if anything is even recognizable at all. Most are bulk carriers and container ships. The long ship just below the estuary of the little stream in the middle is an oil tanker. Along the beach to the right, parts and pieces of scrap metal are cut down and sorted for reuse.
Here is a closeup of one segment of the above showing some freighters reduced to mere skeletons:
Due to the global economic downturn and the resulting drastic reduction in cargo shipping traffic has brought an unexpected boom in business to places like Chittagong. Apparently, the overwhelming majority of the world's decommissioned large vessels is dismantled in one of three places: Chittagong, Alang in India, and Ganida in Pakistan. Google Earth shows similar scenes in the latter two, but since their imagery for these places is nearly five years old, their beaches are not nearly as crowded with vessels deemed redundant after the market collapse as in Chittagong, for which Google furnishes images as recent as last November.
The occasion for the above article is a meager attempt last week by the International Marine Organization to ratify a treaty that would regulate the ship-wrecking industry. Even if its provisions were put in place quickly (which will not be the case), the treaty has hardly any bite. While dismantling large ships is a major source of steel for countries like Bangladesh, which is poor in ore and coal, and while the industry generates directly or indirectly more than 125,000 jobs in Chittagong alone, the practice of "beaching" large ships for onsite dismantling in poor countries with little or no regulation - much less enforcement - is an environmental and occupational catastrophe. Hardly any of the aspects that make it a catastrophe are addressed by the treaty.
Asbestos, arsenic, PCBs, mercury, lead, dioxins, and an assortment of other hazardous materials are leaked and washed into the sea during the dismantling, or even burned off. Workers labor without even a modicum of what would be considered adequate workplace safety precautions in OECD countries, no hardhats or anything, and are usually blissfully unaware of the toxicity of the materials with which they come in contact. Wikipedia notes that "an average of one worker a day dies from falls and other accidents while others are expected to succumb to future cancers." This for an average salary of three Euros a day.
There are some images of weirdly staggering post-apocalyptic beauty in the above-linked article, under this link here, and here. Apparently, there is also an award-winning documentary about "shipbreaking" in Alang. Syeda Rizwana Hassan, a lawyer in Bangladesh, was awarded one of this year's Goldman Environmental Prizes for her legal activism against this horrendously dangerous operation (watch the video at the site, too).