When big ships go out of service, they go to a graveyard in India - but work there has ground to a halt as oxygen is diverted to fight COVID

Cheryl Teh
·4 min read
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The Exxon Valdez is one of thousands of ships dismantled at the Alang ship-breaking yard in western Indian state of Gujarat, India. AP Photo
  • Gujarat, India, is home to one of the largest ship-breaking yards in the world.

  • Workers there deconstruct and strip decommissioned ships using oxygen-fueled torches and turn them into scrap metal.

  • But oxygen is being diverted to hospitals for COVID patients, bringing the ship-breaking industry to its knees.

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India's industrial oxygen supply has been diverted to local hospitals to help treat the surge of COVID patients, and that's causing devastating consequences for the country's ship-breaking industry.

Shipbreaking, the practice of breaking down and stripping large ships and transporters for metal, requires liquefied oxygen fuel torches in order to cut through iron and steel.

But as oxygen supplies are diverted to hospitals to help treat COVID patients, ship-breaking yards - like the Alang-Sosiya Shipyard on India's western coast - are grinding to a halt.

It is estimated that 70 to 100 tons of oxygen are required every day to get through the decommissioned ships that arrive at the scrapyard.

"Alang could be closed by the end of the week as there is no industrial grade oxygen supply," said Anand Hiremath, lead coordinator of the sustainable ship and offshore recycling program at Global Marketing Systems, a company that buys ships for demolition, told the Hindu Business Line.

alang shipyard
Workers need oxygen to operate the gas torches at the Alang-Sosiya ship breaking yards, but this oxygen has been diverted to the country's battle against COVID. Amit Dave/Reuters

"Not a single ton of gas is coming to Alang. Everything has been diverted for medical use for the last couple of days. Ship-breaking at almost all the plots has stopped completely," Haresh Parmar, a ship breaker at Alang and honorary joint secretary at the Ship Recycling Industries Association, told The Indian Express.

Mukesh Patel, chairman of Shree Ram Group, the biggest supplier of industrial oxygen to Alang, told the outlet that nearly 90% of shipbreaking there has halted.

"We will be clocking huge losses because of this shutdown at Alang. However, our association feels that the oxygen should be given where it is most needed now," Parmar added.

Shipbreaking operations slowed in September last year over COVID and have not recovered

alang shipyard
Workers dismantle a decommissioned ship at the Alang shipyard in the western state of Gujarat, India Amit Dave/Reuters

According to Shipbreaking Platform, a non-governmental organization campaigning for clean and safe ship recycling, more than 70% of decommissioned ships end up in South Asia - and many are broken up by workers who spend days hacking and slicing metal apart on the beaches of Alang-Sosiya.

Shipbreaking can help reduce the need for metal mining. But the process also comes at a high cost to workers. According to the Gujarat Maritime Board, more than 200 workers have died in work-related accidents and fires in the last decade. And shipbreaking can wreak havoc on the environment, as oil and other waste products from the ships leak into the water and soil.

Alang has been struggling to maintain its industrial oxygen supply since last September, when 70% of the site's shipbreaking operations were temporarily suspended. This happened after a surge in cases in the country prompted government officials to make moving oxygen supplies to hospitals and COVID care centers a priority.

Alang and other shipyards across the country may not see their oxygen supplies increase anytime soon. India's COVID cases have increased in recent months - particularly after a deadly, "double mutation" variant of the virus was detected there. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the country has recorded over 15.3 million cases and over 180,000 deaths - second only to the US.

Reuters also reported this week that hospitals in Delhi said they may run out of medical oxygen by Wednesday. Major government hospitals in Delhi had between eight to 24 hours' worth of oxygen left, while private hospitals were down to four to five hours, the outlet said.

"If we don't get enough supplies by tomorrow morning, it will be a disaster," said Manish Sisodia, Delhi's deputy chief minister, on Tuesday, calling for help from the government.

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