Toxic ships sail in on false papers

With serious questions hanging over the authorities’ verification systems, scrap ships like Portland are being dismantled along the Sitakunda beach, littering a vast area with materials that are allegedly highly hazardous to health and environment. Photo: Star

Provision that allows ship-owners to self-certify the waste is up for abuse; environment ministry just not equipped to check toxic materials at scrap-ship yards in Chattogram

The ship-breaking industry in Chattogram remains extremely dirty and dangerous for workers and the environment. The top ship-recycling country in the world has failed to regulate the clandestine business effectively, for which frequent death, injury and pollution continue to be in the headlines. An investigation by Mostafa Yousuf of The Daily Star and Margot Gibbs of Finance Uncovered in the UK exposes how the weak regulatory system gets exploited for permission to scrap vessels containing asbestos and other hazardous materials.

In 2018, aged just 43, Mazidul Haque developed severe breathing problems, consulted a doctor and was diagnosed with asbestosis, a potentially fatal respiratory disease which scars the lungs. After more than a decade working in the shipbreaking yards of Chattogram, he lost his job, and the means to support his family.

“I’ve lost hope for life,” he said.

The disease is caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos, a material once prized for its insulating properties, but banned in many countries because it is deadly to those who inhale its fibres. Its use, however, remains legal in Bangladesh.

For most of his adult life, Mazidul had been working with asbestos in the shipbreaking yards. A typical merchant vessel might contain around 10 tonnes of the material, hidden away in places like the engine room and fuel lines.

Mazidul wasn’t aware of the risks involved when he started work; he was given no training to work with the material, and wasn’t provided with equipment to prevent the fibres from entering his lungs.

Asbestos is rife in Sitakunda, where most of Bangladesh’s shipbreaking workers live and work. Furniture shops sell cheap “asbestos ovens” for as little as Tk 250 (£2.20), popular with low-wage workers.

The raw materials, say shopkeepers, are supplied by the shipbreaking yards.

The powerful shipbreaking industry, which generates around half of Bangladesh’s raw steel supply, is frequently shamed in the international media for its devastating impact on workers’ lives and the environment.

But nearly a decade after the government was forced by the Supreme Court to introduce rules to protect workers like Mazidul, an investigation from The Daily Star and Finance Uncovered, a UK journalism organisation, suggests that a major part of the regulatory system is a sham.

These rules banned the import of vessels for scrap containing a range of hazardous materials including asbestos. And they demanded that shipowners must submit certificates to the Bangladesh authorities declaring their vessels have been “pre-cleaned” of these.

Our investigation obtained a cache of 28 such certificates. Each had been submitted to, and accepted by, the ministry of environment.

But respected ship recycling experts in Europe told us the documents were worthless. One branded them “rubbish”.

Even government officials privately admitted to us the certificates are not realistic, but they insisted they do not have the means to check the declarations through meaningful inspections.

Md Shahab Uddin, minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said the ministry has plans to set up modernised laboratories to test such toxic materials.

“As the responsibility is given to the environment ministry to check the toxic material, we are determined to do whatever is needed to do to stop any malpractice,” he said.

Of the 28 documents obtained by The Daily Star, 17 were from companies registered in secretive offshore tax havens, making it difficult to hold them accountable.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) against the state in connection with shipbreaking regulations. Its judgment was damning: it found that documents used to import a toxic vessel for scrap in 2016 were “superficially prepared” or “fabricated”.

The findings of our investigation now suggest the issue may be widespread — with the role of offshore companies being a key aspect.

Lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan, director of Bela, said, “Officials have been allowing vessels to enter Bangladesh knowing full well that the country has no preparation to deal with the waste.

“It’s time to go heavily against such malpractices to ensure that cash buyers and their allies in the government are held liable if they continue to resort to their heinous tactics.”

She added, “Cash buyers are hiding behind anonymously owned offshore companies so we can’t hold them liable for the damage they cause.”

Dozens of workers have died in the yards in recent years according to local NGOs, but more still will suffer early deaths from their exposure to materials like asbestos.

Multinational shipping firms appear to have distanced themselves from these deaths in part by selling their end-of-life vessels to so-called cash buyers, many of them based offshore where their ownership is kept secret. These companies specialise in sending ships to scrap but also provide a firewall between the yards and PR-conscious shipowners.

Bangladesh is a signatory of the Basel Convention, which is supposed to stop hazardous waste being dumped in developing countries. In 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that, in keeping with this convention, ships should be cleared of their hazardous materials before they are imported for demolition in Bangladesh.

Two years later, the government imposed the import ban on toxic ships and introduced rules requiring shipowners to provide certificates showing no hazardous wastes on board.

Inspectors are then supposed to visit the ships at anchorage to check the vessels for hazardous materials before giving permission for scrapping.

But according to Rizwana, by allowing shipowners to self-certify the waste they contain, the government set up a system which was bound to fail and open to potential abuse.

And when contacted by The Daily Star, the senior government officials charged with responsibility for shipbreaking appeared to be ignorant of what the rules demanded.

In its judgment earlier this year, the Supreme Court found that the government had failed to implement this system in the case of the North Sea Producer, an ageing oil tanker previously owned by Maersk and sent from the UK to be broken up in Chattogram. The court found that the presence of hazardous materials on the vessel had been “deliberately concealed or left vague”.

It singled out a document supplied by a company based in the Caribbean tax haven of Saint Kitts and Nevis, claiming the ship contained no hazardous materials on board, including “nil” asbestos.

It was later discovered that the ship had illegal levels of radioactive waste on board, and according to documents submitted to the court, 500kg of materials containing asbestos was removed from the vessel.

The rules have been amended a number of times in the last decade, meaning that there has been disagreement over whether they required hazardous materials to be moved from the ship’s structure.

But the Supreme Court ruling in the North Sea Producer case directed the government to “stringently regulate” cash buyers and enforce the pre-cleaning system.

Maersk has yet to comment on the matter.

Interestingly, the pre-cleaning certificates obtained by The Daily Star contain identical wording to the North Sea Producer document.

Of the 28 certificates leaked to The Daily Star, half were submitted by companies based in secretive tax havens, including five from St Kitts and Nevis. Ownership of “offshore” companies like these — which stand to make million dollar profits on their deals — is a tightly guarded secret.

According to Rizwana, cash buyers’ use of anonymous companies protects their true owners from potential liability for the damage they cause.

A third of the vessels in the cache used flags of convenience like Palau and St Kitts and Nevis, which are blacklisted by European port authorities for their poor enforcement of international shipping conventions.

Many of the certificates declare: “Based on the information available, we hereby confirm that the subject vessel [is] not carrying hazardous cargo nor nuclear items on board and presently is not carrying hazardous cargo onboard. As such, the ship is safe without any non-hazardous material.”

Around half the certificates then list the materials that the ships are clear from. First on the list is asbestos, frequently stating, “Nil — based on the available information”.

Wouter Rozenveld, who runs a ship recycling consultancy which works with yards in the EU, Turkey and China, said the declarations on the certificates are “rubbish”.

Most ships headed for the beaches in South Asia were built decades before international rules banned the use of asbestos in shipbuilding in 2011.

“You’ll find asbestos in the gaskets, in the fuel lines, in the sea water lines, in the firefighting lines,” Rozenveld explained. “You cannot operate a vessel without these things. The workers who clear this will in decades die of asbestosis.”

He said it would only be possible to clean a ship completely after cutting the ship down to its bare steel, which would take months of work from asbestos-trained workers.

“To do this removal would take a team on board for three months and it would cost you millions.”

Another European expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained: “This whole concept of pre-cleaning, it’s expensive: it’s extremely expensive and you’d only do it if you were going to scrap the ship in a good yard.”

He added, “We would always expect a statement of no asbestos on board to be backed up by some sort of evidence: what testing or sampling have they done?”

Mohammad Moazzom Hossain, director of Chattogram’s Department of Environment, told The Daily Star that it “exerts all efforts to ensure that ships are free of hazardous materials”.

But he said the department has no means of even testing for asbestos.

This means that the offshore companies’ claims that ships are “safe” for breaking are being accepted without any reasonable chance of being verified.

AKM Shamsul Arefin, who recently retired as head of ship recycling at the Ministry of Industries, says the ministry was aware that asbestos would still likely be present in ships’ engine rooms, despite the claims made on the pre-cleaning certificates.

He said: “That is why we made it mandatory to have an asbestos decontamination room in the yard to make sure this poison does not go outside the yard.”

However, Department of Environment reports from this October-November show that many of these decontamination rooms are not functional.

Officials at the Department of Environment and Ministry of Industries, speaking anonymously, admit that they are aware that the certificates do not accurately describe the hazardous materials aboard the vessels.

But they say the problem is that if authorities impose restrictions regarding this, the shipbreaking industry would not exist: if scrutinised thoroughly, poisonous substances would be found onboard every ship.

Pre-cleaning is expensive and a regime that strictly imposed it could mark the end for Bangladesh’s beaching yards. One of the main reasons that places like Sitakunda are so popular for scrapping ships is that they are so cheap to use.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is supporting Bangladesh in its efforts to bring yards up to standards set by the Hong Kong Convention, which sets out rules intended to protect workers and the environment from the damage they could cause.

Under that convention, all ships destined for demolition must have a full Inventory of Hazardous Materials, a detailed document marking the presence and location of all hazardous materials on the ship, along with a ship recycling plan agreed with the yard where recycling is set to take place.

But campaigners say these rules themselves are unacceptable as they would continue to allow thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste to be dumped each year in Bangladesh, which the country has no means to deal with. They also argue such standards would contradict Bangladesh’s own apparent ban on importing hazardous materials in ships.

Those familiar with the practices in Sitakunda say while some yards are making efforts to improve worker protections, far more is needed to satisfy the Hong Kong Convention standards.

Without these changes, workers like Mazidul Haque are likely to continue being exposed to asbestos.

The Daily Star talked to workers from five shipyards of Sitakunda about the protective gear and training they were given in their work.

Sahab Uddin says when he started working in 2010 at Khawaja Ship Breaking Yard he received no training.

“I started dismantling ships at the yard as a cutter man back in 2010 with no knowledge of the risks…. I came to learn about the risk as I lost my fellow colleagues in accidents like explosion, suffocation or fire incidents,” he said.

And although the yards now make protective gear available, the workers often remove it under pressure to work faster.

Another worker, preferring anonymity, said because the shipyards use loans to buy the vessels, they are in a hurry to pay them off quickly and avoid interest payments.

“That is why they want us to break the ship faster. The faster the ship is dismantled, the better for the owner. But it puts us at huge risk of accidents. We cannot wear proper protective gear fearing it would decelerate our speed,” he added.

Leading cash buyers Wirana and Global Marketing Systems (GMS), were contacted to comment on what basis they made declarations that the vessels were free of hazardous materials, and whether they were based on an Inventory of Hazardous Materials.

Only GMS, the world’s biggest cash buyer, which also acted as the agent for the import of the North Sea Producer, provided a response.

GMS instructed London law firm Carter Ruck to respond. Nigel Tait, a partner at the firm, said in a response that pre-cleaning certificates were based on an Inventory of Hazardous Materials provided by the original shipowners, and “reputable third party surveyors and agencies who have conducted the pre-cleaning”.

However, he also said the hazardous waste that forms part of the vessel’s structure would not be removed because it would create “safety issues while sailing”.

He said there was no legal requirement to strip back ships to their bare steel to remove all hazardous materials from the ships’ structures.

“Our client ensures that, in compliance with the Sustainable Ship and Offshore Recycling Programme, the relevant green teams (with hazmat experts) inspect the vessel and mark all potential parts/material that could contain hazardous material.”

On whether asbestos was identified, he said, “Separate asbestos decontamination rooms are provided for individual yards in Bangladesh and safely disposed of in a vertical concrete column.”

He maintained that GMS had acted legally throughout.

Now unemployed, Mazidul Haque is struggling to support his wife, mother, two sons and daughter. They are currently living on microloans, but he has no idea how he will repay them.

At the point of despair, he is now working to raise awareness about the deadly issue. He has urged the government to make sure workers are no longer exposed to asbestos.

Without that, many more workers like him will continue to suffer.

Groundwater abuse takes toll on Barind

People carry drinking water to their home in Rajshahi’s Tanone upazila. With the groundwater level dropping and rainfall decreasing alarmingly over the years, residents of the country’s Barind region have to toil hard to fetch water from deep tube wells as far as kilometres away from their homes. The photo was taken recently. Photo: Collected

Region suffers from acute water crisis; country’s first water governance project begins from 3 districts

When Matiur Rahman first ventured into fruit farming in Chapainawabganj’s Jhilim union in 2011, the major obstacle he had to meet head on was the ongoing water crisis in the northwest.

“The nearest water source was two and a half kilometres away,” he said.

He started lifting water from the distant source — a deep tubewell installed by Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA) but it dried up in six years.

“I felt helpless,” Matiur,  a Roads and Highways Department driver, said.

Experts have observed people in the region are struggling to get drinking water while many paddy farmers are either diversifying to less water-intensive crops or converting their croplands to ponds and brick kilns.

The region is characterised by decreasing rainfall and depleting groundwater levels, mostly extracted for paddy farming, rice mill operations, and other industrial purposes.

“The situation is worsening as some people are withdrawing everyone’s share of the groundwater,” said a prominent hydrologist, Prof Chowdhury Sarwar Jahan of Rajshahi University.

Apart from paddy fields, at least 35 auto rice mills in Jhilim union, which covers 23.45 square kilometres of area, use groundwater round the clock, heavily affecting the aquifer, he said.

On a recent visit to union, this correspondent observed rice mills on both sides of the Amnura-Chapainawabganj road.

Mansur Rahman, general secretary of Chapainawabganj Rice Mill Owners Association, said each of the 35 rice mills of the union has at least three deep tubewells.

Mansur’s Sagar Auto Rice Mills has six. “We have no other water options for running our businesses,” he said.

Md Mostafa, a farmer of Collegepara village in Jhilim, shifted from paddy to lentil cultivation.

“Many cultivable fields, where we cropped three times a year before, are now uncultivable because of a dearth of water,” he said.

Matiur’s venture, for instance, would have been nipped in the bud, without water.

In 2016, the NGO Development Association for Self-reliance, Communication and Health (DASCOH) gave him a water-pump and introduced him to drip irrigation, a water-saving method that allows water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either above the soil surface or buried below it.

He has now grown into one of the country’s most successful fruit farmers receiving multiple government awards in five years.

However, not all farmers in the Barind region have been as lucky as Matiur and abuse of water resources is rampant.

Unchecked industrial and agricultural use of water has depleted groundwater in a region which also saw lower than average rainfall in recent years.

On a visit to Rajshahi’s Godagari upazila on March 22, this correspondent observed the Sormongola canal, which is supposed to supply water from the Padma river to nearby agricultural fields, running dry while private deep tubewells have been installed on both sides of the canal.

Farmers The Daily Star spoke to said they were angry about having to pay high prices for water for their crops from these tubewells, while the canal ran dry.

GROUNDWATER LEVEL LOWER THAN EVER

According to Prof Chowdhury, the region’s annual rainfall has never exceeded 1,400mm in seven years till 2018, which is 45 percent less than the national average of 2,550mm.

Last year, however, the region witnessed 1,800mm of annual rainfall.

The areas of Nachol and Gomostapur in Chapainawabganj; Tanore and Godagari in Rajshahi; and Porsha, Sapahar, and Niamatpur upazilas in Naogaon are over 47m higher than sea level.

Whereas, there are areas in the same districts which are only around 10m higher than sea level, he noted.

“Paddy farming using only groundwater can have a toll on the availability of drinking water in these high and arid areas,” he said.

Groundwater provides 75 percent of water needed for rice irrigation in Bangladesh, the world’s fourth largest rice-producing country.

Bangladesh Rice Research Institute estimates around 3,000 litres of water are required to produce one kilogramme of Boro rice.

“This estimate does not even count the water use in rice mills,” Prof Chowdhury said.

Wheat and maize require around 400-600 litres of water per kilogramme production, he said.

So, grain production in the region should use surface water for irrigation, he recommended, adding a focus on less water-consuming fruit and vegetable farming can help preserve groundwater in the region.

The region’s groundwater level was only 30 feet below in the ’70s when farmers used surface and rain water for irrigation and hand tubewells for drinking water, said BMDA’s Superintending Engineer Abdur Rashid.

With BMDA installing deep tubewells in the ’90s, farmers began cultivating three crops a year turning the northwest into one of the country’s major grain-producing regions, he said.

Following BMDA’s lead, solvent farmers and businesspeople installed their own deep tubewells.

In 2012, when BMDA stopped installing fresh deep tubewells and moved to focusing on surface water, private tubewells continued to flourish for agricultural and industrial use.

Around 70 percent of the Barind region’s annual groundwater extraction of 13,710 million cubic metres is done by unregulated private deep tubewells, according to a rough estimate by BMDA recently. This amount of water would fill up around 18 lakh ponds — each 2m deep and covering one bigha.

In February 2018, the lowest groundwater level was recorded in Nachol upazila at 107 feet below the surface, a fall of over 28 feet since 2005 when the level was at 78.8 feet.

“The fall is still on,” Rashid said, adding that the levels go as low as 130 feet below the surface at the end of irrigation season.

COUNTRY’S FIRST WATER GOVERNANCE PROJECT

“Everyone has equal rights to water and an optimum use of water can ensure it,” said Md Delwar Hossain, director general of the Water Resources Planning Organisation (WARPO), an apex planning body in the water sector.

Bangladesh Water Act 2013 and Bangladesh Water Rules 2018 ensure these rights, and the government has now decided to enforce laws to identify and secure water resources, and regulate their use, the DG added.

WARPO began the process on March 19 by setting up an office in Rajshahi and inaugurating a water modelling project in Sardaha union of Rajshahi’s Charghat upazila.

Under the project, WARPO will map surface and underground water resources, measure availability and adequacy of the resources following scientific methods, and secure these, officials said.

It will also determine water demands for personal, agricultural and industrial purposes, and identify the safe withdrawal limit of groundwater and thus, regulate water use.

WARPO officials said they would declare an area as water stressed, if found any, during the hydrological investigation under the project.

According to the WARPO chief, this water governance is the first of its kind in the country.

It is initially starting in three Barind districts — Chapainawabganj, Naogaon, and Rajshahi — presumed to be most affected by water scarcity.

Following the results, the process will start in other parts of the country soon, he said.

In March 2020, the Planning Commission had sanctioned the Tk 15.34 crore project titled “Operationalising Integrated Water Resources Management”.

It remained stalled due to the coronavirus situation, until earlier this month. The project is slated to be completed in June 2023.

The project will conduct hydrological investigation and water modelling in every mouza of the three districts.

The government will provide Tk 10.24 crore while the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is providing the remaining Tk 5.10 crore of the project funds.

The Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) is providing consultation while SDC’s partner DASCOH is assisting implementation in the Barind region.

Another Tk 300 crore project for countrywide water mapping and modelling is awaiting approval, WARPO officials said.

This project was a long-cherished demand of the region, said Prof Chowdhury of Rajshahi University.

“Its successful implementation is necessary. When we will know the exact water situation, we can make the right decisions for our agricultural and industrial development,” he said.

Salinity in Coastal Areas: Alternative crops ignite farmers’ hope

Govt moves to introduce new farming techniques

People living by the Kirtonkhola river in Barishal noticed in March this year that the river’s water had become unusually salty.

After an electrical conductivity test, Department of Environment officials confirmed what the locals have been saying.

They said the sudden rise in salinity may have been caused by reduced water flow from upstream and lower rainfall.

The Kirtonkhola is now another in a list of over 100 rivers flowing through the coastal region and affected by salinity due to sea water intrusion.

Saline river water also results in salinity in the groundwater which in turn increases the level of soil salinity. And that causes a significant reduction of vegetation in the affected areas, experts say.

Around 25-30 percent of the country’s arable land is located in 21 coastal districts, of which 53 percent has become saline-affected, finds a recent study by Khulna University.

According to the study, around 75 percent of land in Satkhira, 66 percent in Bagerhat, 32 percent land in Khulna, and 72 percent in Barguna are affected by salinity.

In a study by the government in 2009, salinity-affected areas increased to 1.05 million hectares from the 0.83 hectares found in the previous government study in 1973.

The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) said rice production in Bangladesh may fall by 10 percent and wheat production by 30 percent by 2050.

But seawater intrusion into the country’s river system seems to be leaving an impact on the coastal region that is much worse than forecast by the IPCC.

While farmers in other parts of the country are cultivating up to four crops a year, farmers in the coastal region are hardly able to cultivate a single one.

“Twenty-five percent of the country’s arable land is in the coastal area, which has become saline. In most of the saline-prone areas, either people do shrimp farming or cultivate transplanted Aman rice. But now we are encouraging farmers to cultivate saline-tolerant alternative crops if they cannot grow rice,” said Agriculture Minister Muhammad Abdul Razzaq.

“In a country with only 10 decimal agricultural land per capita, you will find miles after miles of barren land in the coastal area, and that is a major setback for the country,” the minister said.

But the country is gradually trying to adapt to the situation.

Scientists from Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) have developed some rice varieties that can be cultivated in saline-prone areas.

“Our scientists have developed BRRI 67, a saline tolerant variety which will be very successful,” the minister said.

Along with this saline tolerant variety, the minister said, “We will encourage them [local farmers] to cultivate alternative crops”.

People from Patuakhali did not know how to cultivate mung beans. But for the last few years, they have been cultivating mung beans, a very good alternative crop, the minister said.

Local agricultural offices in coastal districts have taken some initiatives of farming alternative crops, the minister said.

“Once the pandemic is over, we will take up a special programme to encourage alternative crop farming along with saline tolerant rice varieties,” the minister said.

WATERMELON AND VEGETABLES BRING NEW HOPE

Kamal Bawali of Bhulbaria village under Khulna’s Dumuria upazila, a saline-prone area, used to cultivate Aman paddy on his two bighas of land. But he hardly made any profit due to the low yield of local Aman variety.

But Kamal’s fate changed last year as he and a few other farmers received preliminary training and guidelines from a local agriculture officer on how to cultivate crops in saline-prone areas.

After learning the method last year, Kamal cultivated watermelon on his land. He grew around 800 watermelons on one bigha. This year he cultivated even more on a total of five bighas of land.

He spent Tk 56,000 to cultivate watermelons. In a bumper harvest, he earned a profit of around Tk 3 lakh from watermelons this year.

Rabiul Islam Robi, union parishadchairmanof Sharifpur of Dumuria, told The Daily Star that people of the region used to put all their hopes on salt-water shrimp (bagda) farming.

Farmers had tried to grow vegetables and sowed seeds many times, but it used to be damaged due to the effect of saline water and it was not possible to produce vegetables or other crops here, he said.

But now, farmers are growing watermelons, wheat, maize, and winter vegetables from their land using rainwater.

Many people migrated from the area as they lost their livelihoods. But now the method of digging small ponds to preserve fresh water for irrigation to produce vegetables or other crops have raised hopes in Dumuria, Batiaghata, Dacope, Paikgacha upazilas of Khulna district over the last couple of years, the UP chairman added.

THE FARMING METHOD

Farmers store rainwater by digging small ponds in a portion of their land for irrigation of crops. Later they apply potash, gypsum and organic fertiliser on the land as per the rules taught by agricultural officials to grow crops.

Using this method, thousands of farmers in saline-prone areas of Khulna have revolutionised agriculture, said GM A Gafur, additional director of Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) of Khulna region.

Mosaddek Hossain, Dumuria upazila agriculture officer, told The Daily Star that all of Magurkhali union and many parts of Sharafpur and Shobhana unions were once saline-prone areas fit only for shrimp cultivation.

“Using freshwater from rainwater and using 20 kgs of potash, 15 kgs of gypsum and organic fertilisers, farmers are now producing multiple crops,” he added.

This has brought a radical change among farmers. They are now cultivating Aman, Aush, corn, watermelon, potato, onion, eggplant, gourd, tomato, pumpkin, bean, long bean, red amaranth, cauliflower, gourd, radish, etc.

According to the DAE, about 6,000 tonnes of vegetables are being produced in just these three unions. In the last three and a half years, 2,500 hectares of land – 75 percent of cultivable land — has come under agricultural cultivation in the unions through a joint venture of farmers and the Department of Agriculture.

Officially, 2,000 farmers are being trained in saline-prone areas. DoAare also providing seeds to those farmers at free of cost.

Battling the spectre of fires in densely populated areas

Fires in commercial establishments do more damage than setting buildings ablaze.

Lives are lost, businesses disrupted and wounds take years to heal.

In Bangladesh, a survey by the Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters, in 2017, showed that only 129 of 3,786 establishments in Dhaka, the country’s capital city, were not classified as “Risky” or “Extremely Risky”.

The results signal the high risk of accidents taking place.

On Mar 28, 2019, a massive fire engulfed the FR Tower in Dhaka’s commercial Banani area, killing 26 people and leaving around 100 people injured.

Barely a month ago, at least 70 people were killed after a fire broke out in an apartment building that was reportedly also used as a chemicals warehouse and spread to nearby buildings.

Fire accidents are not uncommon in densely populated Bangladesh owing to lax safety regulations and poor building conditions.

Officials say the problem is that the laws requiring buildings to have safety measures was enforced only in 2006.

There is a treasure trove of risk assessments conducted by urban planners over the years all nailing down the same conclusion — the city needs to be protected.

“In 2017 we surveyed over 3,500 schools, colleges, universities, hotels banks, hospitals, media houses and shopping markets within Dhaka city to assess their vulnerability to fire, and what we found was pretty frightening,” said Major AKM Shakil Newaz, the director of operations at the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters.

“None of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection, because the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) was yet to come into effect,” he added.

The BNBC was drafted in 1993 and published in the form of a government gazette, but was not enforced as a legally binding document until a decade and a half later.

The factors examined were quite simple and gauged a building’s basic fire-safety measures – does the building have firefighting equipment? Is it heavily populated? Does it have emergency exits? Does the establishment practise evacuation drills? Was there any chance of an electrical fire? Is there an underground water reservoir?

“All high-rise constructions that took place after 2006 needed to get a fire safety clearance from the Fire Service department. They will not be able to build any building over six storeys without having the plans inspected by someone from this department,” said Major Shakil.

However, this still excludes majority of the city.

This is what people in the 22-storey FR Tower – which was constructed before the 2006 cut-off mark – were quick to find out.

There was not a single fire-protected staircase in the entire building.

“The building had only one staircase,” said Kazi Saad Nur, whose wife Zarin Tasnim works on the 12th floor of the building.

“She called me and told me she cannot come down, so she went up to the 15th floor. But after that her phone was found switched off and I was unable to reach her,” he said. Zarin was later reported to have suffocated to death.

The staircase, which was already overcome with smoke, was, however, not the only one in the building.

There was another – a barely one-foot wide staircase snaking out of the back of the building. This staircase had become a doubly precarious undertaking during the fire.

The risks were such that the Fire Department actually sent two letters in 2017 and 2018 to the building authorities which highlighted the lack of fire safety measures in the building.

“The staircase was filled with smoke and my brother, who was stuck on the 9th floor, was unable to use it to escape. He and his colleagues used a hacksaw to cut open the iron grilles on the toilet window and jumped to the next building,” said Nalifa Mehelin, another relative of a victim who was trapped in the fire.

The lack of safety measures in buildings has become alarmingly common.

THE CITY THAT BURNS

On March 2, 2019, just ten days after an inferno took over Churihatta in Chawkbazaar, a fire broke out again in the area. This time it was a scrap metal shop where a gas cylinder had exploded, turning the shop white-hot, and leaving three staffers with as much as 30 per cent burns.

On the very same day a fire broke out in a slum in Tejgaon Industrial area, gutting 50 homes. This newspaper reported that the fire stemmed from a pile of rubble left behind by government workers, following an eviction drive.
Three days later, a fire broke out in a tyre warehouse in Old Dhaka’s Nawabpur area. Media reported that it took firefighters two hours to bring the flames under control.

Before the fumes from that had died down, there was a fire in a slum in Nakhalpara – one big enough for the fire service to need eight units to bring it under control. Following this, there was another fire in another scrap goods warehouse in Lalbagh.

All of this was a month’s work.

But more importantly, these were only the ones that were reported – in fact a Star Weekend analysis showed that only one per cent of fire incidents are ever reported in the media.

Calculating from the statistics of the last three years published by the Fire Service Department, there are on average 43 fire incidents every single day that need to be tackled by firefighters.

Additionally, an article published in 2004 by the Institute of Engineers, Bangladesh, titled “Fire Hazard Categorization and Risk Assessment for Dhaka City in GIS Framework”, found that the Tejgaon Industrial Area, Fulbaria and Postogola were the most hazardous areas in the city to live in, having more than 30 fire incidents annually. The next-worst areas were found to be Jatrabari, Sadarghat, Shakhari bazar, Waizghat, Simpson Road, New Market and Mirpur-1.

Risk zones are many. In 2001, a Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) graduate student studying the area of Mohammadpur found that shopping centres and filling stations have more frequent fire incidents.

On top of the pile of tinder – which are high-rises without basic safety measures – there are 867 chemical warehouses spread throughout the city which too are operating without fire safety clearances, according to statistics provided by the department.
In 2012, students from BUET’s department of Urban & Regional Planning (URP) assessed 153 chemical warehouses on Armanitola road for fire risk.

All the chemical warehouses studied showed that the amount of chemicals stored exceeded the amount allowed by BNBC. In most of the warehouses the amount stored was between 2,500kg and 5,500kg, with the highest going to 10,000 kilograms.

Worse yet, they found that of the warehouses, 17 percent had chemicals that would ignite almost immediately – similar to what had been observed in Chawkbazaar.

“None of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection, because the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) was yet to come into effect,”

Only a quarter of the warehouses were storing non-flammable materials.

This fire risk did not seem to cause a dent in the psyche of the businessmen there – very few of the warehouses had fire extinguishers and none of them had fire alarms or any fire-protected staircases. A quarter had staircases which also served as storage units. Shockingly, half of the warehouses had homes and hospitals in the same building.

“The people who are in the business of importing and storing chemicals do not have knowledge of the chemical properties of those substances at all. Most chemical shop and storage owners do not even accept that they are dealing with chemicals,” said Nushrat Jahan, one of the authors of the paper titled “Fire Hazard Risk Assessment of Mixed Use Chemical Storage Facilities: A Case Study of Chemical Warehouses in Old Dhaka”, which was published in Journal of Bangladesh Institute of Planners.

The author, currently a Planning PhD student at the University of Toronto, also added that all of this boils down to creating awareness.

There is a treasure trove of risk assessments conducted by urban planners over the years all nailing down the same conclusion — the city needs to be protected.

A thesis published in 2008 by the Department of Urban Planning (URP) at BUET narrowed in on what was then ward 72 (now ward 36) comprising Islampur, Shakhari bazar, Simpson Road and Court House Street, and found that most of the buildings there were moderately vulnerable to fire.

Similarly in 2015, a report published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction by graduate students of University of Texas and BUET, studied the buildings in ward number 29, which is the area around Islambagh.

They found that less than half of the buildings there could be accessed by fire engines and that nearly 59 percent of the buildings were vulnerable to fire.

So why can not the fire service simply go and evacuate the places without any fire safety clearances?

“We do not have the powers of a magistrate. We can only intervene after a disaster has already occurred,” said Maj Shakil.

Besides, he added, that it was not as if they could empty out the city considering the widespread nature of the problem.
“Did you know that 71 percent of the streets in Dhaka are too narrow for fire engines to pass through?”

According to the current law, the roads need to be at least nine metres wide for fire engines to pass through. There needs to be at least a 4.5 metre wide space in front of the building for the fire units to set themselves up.

“These laws completely fall flat in entire areas like Old Dhaka, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Rampura and Khilgaon, among others,” he said.

This story by Zyma Islam was originally published by the Daily Star on March 29.


BEHIND THE STORY
Published on March 29, journalist Zyma Islam exposed the inadequate fire safety of buildings in Bangladesh hot on the heels of a massive fire on March 28 in Dhaka, the nation’s capital. Dubbed as the Banani FR Tower fire, the flames left 26 people dead and around 100 injured. In response to criticism, Housing and Public Works Minister SM Rezaul Karim declared on March 30 that all buildings constructed violating rules would be identified within 15 days. “If necessary, the identified buildings will be sealed off, demolished, or all activities will be suspended there until safety is ensured,” he told reporters after visiting a Gulshan kitchen market where a fire broke out in the morning.

Trafficked into nightmares

Local agents have been smuggling victims across Benapole’s border by showing forged documents of family relations at immigration checkpoints. Sometimes the gang members marry the victims only to sell them into prostitution later.

The Daily Star learned about this after talking to six victims and law enforcers in bordering areas recently.

In most cases, the victims from different parts of the country are gathered at small huts built by the traffickers near Benapole border. At that point, they are treated nicely and given the impression that they would actually go to India for a better future.

When it is time, their counterparts in India would notify their accomplices, and the victims are taken to the other side of the border.

For commuting, the traffickers always use motorbikes just as locals in border areas do, and carry sweetmeat, fish or gift packets to avoid drawing suspicion.

TRAFFICKING ROUTES

According to victims and local law enforcers, the traffickers use Putkhali, Sadipur, Boroachra, and Gathipara points of Jashore to traffic the victims into India without passports.

The victims are first taken to Jashore and then to the border points by motorbike before they are kept in the small huts.

Rights activists said the gang sells a woman or girl to Indian brothels for Tk 2.5 to 3 million.

Take the case of victim Bonya (not her real name).

The 17-year-old girl used to live with her parents in the capital’s Mirpur and was looking for a job after completing higher secondary education. She left home after a woman, her neighbour, promised her a better job in India.

On Jan 28, 2017, she went to Jashore by bus with the woman’s boyfriend. From Jashore town, they went to Benapole by motorbike.

“For the next five days, the man kept me in a small hut with a TV, almirah (a cupboard) and small bed,” Bonya said, talking to The Daily Star in Jashore town after her rescue.

“The man asked me to stay inside the hut and went away. I was not allowed to go outside for security reason, and a woman gave me food timely.”

Bonya come back home in March last year with the support of Rights Jessore, a human rights organisation.

“On Feb 5, the man came back early in the morning and took me near Putkhali where a boat was waiting for me,” she said.

“After crossing the river, I found a man with a motorbike. He drove me into a dense forest. One hour later, I saw a locality.”

In the area, Bonya was kept in a house and forced to sleep with some men, she said. “After a few days, I was being taken to a brothel area. On the way, I ran from them and went to the local police.”

Police then sent Bonya to a shelter home in West Bengal, and she finally made contact with Rights Jessore from there.

This reporter recently visited Putkhali in Benapole, and met a person called Sagar with the help of a local man while posing as a client.

During the conversation about how to cross the border without a passport, Sagar said he could make the arrangement, but it would cost Tk 5,000 (US$59.13) because “border security has been heightened recently.”

When asked if there were two persons including a woman, Sagar grinned and said he could arrange that too, but the cost would go up to Tk 16,000. “We charge extra for women because it is risky, and it takes time.”

After the correspondent agreed, Sagar said, “You need to stay near the border for one day or two. We will first clear the border for you and then help you cross it.”

Sagar demanded an additional Tk 300 for every overnight stay and Tk 200 for food at the hut. He also advised the correspondent to carry some additional cash to buy sweetmeat or fruit on the way.

CONTROLLING BORDER POINTS

Locals and law enforcers said each of the border points is run by local ruling party men. They pay hefty amounts to law enforcers to run the trafficking activities smoothly.

Executive Director of Rights Jessore Binoy Krishna Mallick said, “We have learnt from rescued victims and our local network that some people are leading the nexus at border points using political identity.”

At present, one Ghana Biswas oversees the Putkhali point, Ashok Sen the Boroachra point, and Jahidul Islam the Sadipur point of Benapole, The Daily Star learned after talking to some accomplices of the gangs and sources of law enforcement agencies.

All of them are supporters of the Awami League and have been involved in human trafficking for years, but were never arrested, the sources said. Locally, they are known as farmers despite owning luxurious multi-storey homes in nearby Sharshaupazila, they added.

“In the same way, the traffickers get passports for underage girls. They identify them as children or siblings while making fake passports and documents,”

The Daily Star tried to communicate with them but their phones were switched off.

Rights activists said the gang sells a woman or girl to Indian brothels for Tk 2.5 to 3 million.

Asked about the alleged complicity of the ruling party men, Awami League’s Benapole unit President Enamul Hoque Mukul said some may get involved, but they are doing it in secret.

“We take strict action against whoever is found guilty.”

He said the law enforcers have tightened security, and the situation is improving now.

Asked about AL men’s involvement, lieutenant-colonel Selim Reza, commander of Border Guard Bangladesh-49 (BGB), refused to give a direct reply.

He, however, said they take action against those found involved in the crime. “The situation has got better now, and the number of trafficking incidents has come down to almost zero for our increased vigilance and action.”

Salauddin Sikder, additional police superintendent of Jessore, said trafficking through the border declined in recent years although there were still some reports of trafficking.

He said he had no specific information about law enforcers’ involvement in the crime but warned of action if any member of the force was found guilty.

NEW TECHNIQUES

In recent times, the traffickers have changed techniques. Now they get their prey across the border using the “legal” channel.

“For a woman, the traffickers make fake documents like a marriage certificate and a passport. Then they cross the border like a couple going on a trip to India,” Masud Karim, officer-in-charge of Benapole Police Station, told The Daily Star.

“In the same way, the traffickers get passports for underage girls. They identify them as children or siblings while making fake passports and documents,” said the OC, who claimed to have got the information after interrogating victims.

Now few victims cross the border illegally, he said. “Some are still doing it without passports, but most of them have relatives in India, or they are sick and poor.”

“We charge extra for women because it is risky, and it takes time.”

Asked about raiding the border huts, the OC said they often conduct drives and take action against the criminals. Sometimes, they also rescue victims from the huts.

FAKE RELATIONS

There are some cases in which traffickers marry a girl before selling her to a brothel in India.

On January 18 last year, a Jashore court sentenced one Shohag Hossain of Narail for life and fined him Tk 50,000 for selling his wife to a brothel in Mumbai.

Shohag married the girl of Jashore Sadarupazila on July 7, 2007. Later, he told his in-laws that he would take his wife to India for a better job. The girl’s family refused but he kept insisting, the victim’s family told The Daily Star in May last year.

Finally, Shohag went to India with his wife on April 15, 2009, without letting anyone know. When her family found him missing, they filed a complaint with police and went to Rights Jessore. A few days later, Shohag came back home alone, and said his wife went missing in India.

Rights Jessore rescued the girl from a Mumbai brothel on May 7, 2010, using its network.

This story by Mohammad Jamil Khan was originally published by The Daily Star on Jul 22.

BEHIND THE STORY
The reporter had to act as a local to get in touch with gang members who ran the trafficking trade, in order to acquire information pertaining to the story. Social workers and law enforcement sources, who worked with the trafficked victims, helped clue him in on the gang members tasks and whereabouts. However, he did not get much data or support from the local law enforcers. While working in the field, he convinced locals to help him cross Benapole’s borders without a passport by paying them sums of money. The NGOs who used to work to rescue traffic victims also assisted him in getting some ideas and provided him a database of contacts. As local political leaders were benefiting from the trafficking trade, the reporter was forced to hide his identity while staying in the bordering village. The social workers, who helped him throughout his investigation, alerted him to a possible threat from a political muscleman. After the story published, the reporter received dozens of phone calls congratulating him on the findings. To his knowledge, although illegal human trafficking is still underway through bordering points, the number of trafficking cases has reduced significantly.