Callousness and arrogance on the part of the relevant authorities should be blamed for the environmental disaster now sweeping parts of the Sundarban mangrove forests following the sinking of an oil tanker in the Shela River on December 9. Disregarding all the civic advice the Shipping Ministry resumed vessel movement through the river which is within an important part of Sundarban in 2011. The route through Shela River was introduced defying all environmental concerns only to reduce travel time and distance to a half, from the sea to Mongla Port, the second largest seaport of the country.
Shela flows through the Sundarban connecting Mongla Port with the Bay of Bengal. The other established route to the port from the sea was through the Baleswar River. However, the shipping route was closed in 1974 after a year of navigation following a call from environmentalists. Lighter vessels pass through the route after loading and unloading cargo to and from the bigger oceangoing vessels in the outer anchorage of the port in the Bay of Bengal.
Even after a great environmental disaster that started to destroy the Bangladesh part of the world's largest mangrove forests following the spill out of furnace oil from the sunken vessel, the callousness of the relevant ministry and its head makes it clear that they will not stop before completely destroying the Sundarban, the home of Royal Bengal Tigers, crocodiles, pythons, deer and other endangered animal species.
Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan on Sunday said that his ministry was not going to stop ship movement through the Shela River route in the Sundarban. 'The oil spill will cause little harm to the Sundarban. The present temporary ban on the use of the route is causing problems to the commercial sector,' he told at a news conference. The Minister is concerned about problems of the commercial sector only arising from the oil spillage, but he is least worried of environmental problems that may affect the vast mangrove forest and millions of people living around the Bangladesh part of the Sundarban.
Of the some 10,000 sq km of Sundarban, about 6,000 sq km lies in Bangladesh, where millions of people are directly or indirectly dependent on its resources, including fish, fauna, honey and other naturally renewable forest resources. Licensed people are allowed to collect forest resources for livelihood.
However, measures have been taken to reduce human- animal conflict. People are learning that environment can give them many things and protection for global warming, which has been resulting in gradual declination of killing of animals including tigers.
The Minister's arrogant observations came following an inter-ministerial meeting that recommended banning of ship movement through the Sundarban, a UNESCO natural heritage site. How a minister can make such arrogant statement without paying any heed to an essential suggestion put forward by a group of his cabinet colleagues. Such callousness on his part has also been termed as the causes of chaos and subsequent disaster in transport sector of the country in the recent past. His remarks on the quality and efficiency of unlettered transport operators mainly truck drivers raised humorous coverage including cartoons in the media a couple of years ago. However, he said at the Sunday's news conference: 'To save the biodiversity of the Sundarban and its eco systems we will do our best.'
Meanwhile, reports and pictures filed by local media correspondents depict that animals, reptiles, birds, aquatic living beings including fish and different plants have started dying. It is irony that immediately after the incident relevant authorities failed to assess the possible effects of the oil spillage on the environment and also failed to take prompt decision and essential quick salvage operations. It took more than 48 hours to salvage the sunken vessel 'Southern Star 7' which capsized after being hit by a cargo vessel Total.
Meanwhile, most of the furnace oil consignment spilled out to the river water which spread up to some 100 km along the river and drifted up and down the stream due to the influence of the tide and the ebb. However, according to a media report from India the oil has spread over 350-square-kilometre area straddling Bangladesh and India.
There was an extensive delay in mobilising technicians and disaster management personnel to contain the spreading of oil and to recover the spillage from the river water quickly. The nation also did not see any proactive action from the defence forces including the Navy and other organised forces in containing the spread of oil slick. They should have taken some steps on their own, as the government failed to order the forces to come out immediately to help the shipping and environment ministries in tackling the environmental disaster.
The environmental experts who have the knowhow were also delayed in advising the relevant authorities to use Boom (containment), a dedicated operation to contain spreading of oil spillage. A containment boom is a temporary floating barrier used to contain an oil spill. Booms are used to reduce the possibility of polluting shorelines and other resources, and to help make recovery easier. Booms help to concentrate oil in thicker surface layers so that skimmers, vacuums, or other collection methods can be used more effectively.
Maybe it is our national trait that we often make some delay in taking the right decision at the right time on most issues like natural and man-made disasters. However, immediately after the Shela River oil spillage, local people engaged themselves in the manual and traditional ways in retrieving floating furnace oil from the river.
The only admirable action done by the energy ministry is to ask the state-owned oil distribution company Padma Oil to buy the retrieved furnace oil from the local people at Tk 30 per litre, which was later enhanced to Tk 40 a litre. This has encouraged many poor villagers to collect the spilled oil and sell it to the Padma Oil. However, the poverty of the local people has become a blessing at least for the time being as they have fanned out to collect the floating furnace oil to gain some return. Had the local not been interested in collecting the spilled oil, the disaster would have been colossal.
The oil slick started in the early morning on that day after the small oil tanker carrying some 358,000 litres of furnace oil with eight crew members sank near Mongla around 5:00am following collision with a cargo vessel. All the crew but captain Mokhlesur Rahman survived the disaster and the victim's body was recovered several kilo metres away from the disaster site 48 hours later. All but 400 litres spilled out of after the vessel sank at Joymoni Ghola of the eastern fringe of the Sundarban.r
is Business Editor, The Daily Observer. He can be reached at [email protected]