Monday, June 2, 2008


I can't remember where I first saw Edward Burtynsky's Shipbreaking photographs but these haunting images have stayed with me. The one reproduced above looks like a scene from the Trojan war but these are in fact some of the world's largest ships being disassembled, largely by hand, in some of the world's poorest countries. The scenes Burtynsky shot were in Chittagong, Bangladesh but similar scenes can be found at Alang, India.

Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 there has been increased pressure to phase out the vulnerable single-hulled ships and replace them with safer double-hulled tankers. This might seem like a good idea but the problem comes about when the old ships are broken up. A single oil tanker can contain literally tons of toxic material (eg 7000 kg of asbestos) and in Chittagong and Alang, the workers have virtually no protection from toxic, and other, hazards, and the waste itself often ends up on the beach or in the ocean.

A series of articles on the international shipbreaking industry by Gary Cohn and Will Englund of The Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer prize in 1998 and you can read the series here. The article on Alang is perhaps the most relevant. More recently in 2006 Foreign Policy magazine had a short photo essay on the ship breaking beaches of Chittagong.

I think the sad moral of this story is that one apparently simple change (a move to safer ships) can create a toxic nightmare in a number of poor countries. Cleaning up this mess (literal and metaphorical) isn't going to be easy. This sort of consequence very much reminds me of the ecological consequences we see when we mess around with food webs by introducing alien species or driving species to extinction. There. I made it relevant right at the end.

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