Bangladesh is a small country graced by the gifts of nature and Sundarbans is one of the greatest gifts that our country possesses. In a simple logic, this fauna is supposed to be protected by all means with the efforts of the Bangladeshi Government and the people of the country. But, it is sad to realize that, the actions of government and some profit-oriented businessmen are driving to the destruction of this natural gift and an incident on 9 December, 2014 bears extreme prove of this fact.
During the densely fogged early hours of 9 December, 2014, an oil tanker was rammed by a cargo vessel in the Shela River, at the entrance to the part of Sundarbans at Khulna division in Bangladesh. In the accident, the captain of the tanker was killed though the seven other crew members were lucky to survive as they jumped from the ship and reached the shore swimming. The oil tanker was carrying around 92,000 gallons of furnace oil. The collision occurred inside the Chandpai dolphin sanctuary, a protected Sundarbans mangrove area which is home to rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins. Within very short time, around 52,000 gallons of oil spilled and leaked into the brackish tidal water and by 17 December, 2014, the spilled oil spread over 350 square kilometer area as the slick spread to a network of canals to blacken the shorelines of Sundarbans.
The effort of Bangladesh Government to minimize the damages was subject to the utmost criticism as their slow response to the unfolding disaster was unacceptable. Two days passed before the leaking tanker was towed to land. A little relief was due to this occurrence in low-tide winter season rather than the monsoon season when the spread of the leaked oil might have happened only in few hours.
The cleanup efforts were very elementary relying only on the participation of the local people. The tanker owners, local villagers and fishermen used buoys, sponge, sacks and nets to bar the oil slick from spreading and a 'buy back' program, paying the villagers BDT30 for every liter of sludge retrieved was initiated. From the Government agencies, no direct efforts to minimize the damage was clearly visible in the early days other than filing a damage claim by the Forest department of BDT 1 billion from the owners of the tanker and cargo vessel, involved in the accident.
Later to help in the relief effort, the government and Bangladesh Navy dispatched ships to the area carrying oil dispersants but the plan was cancelled as if such chemicals were released incorrectly, it could harm the local ecology still further. Four days later, the state's efforts seemed to have had little effect, exacerbating fears of a lasting ecological disaster.
Bangladesh's Water Transport Minister said to the media that, the locals were able to stop the oil from entering the forest but that actually provided a real small result as it was very difficult to control the flow of liquid oil with nets, sponge or sacks. The National Forest Department led the operation with 100 boats and 200 fishermen. According to reports, the Padma Oil Company managed to remove about 2,600 gallons of oil in its cleanup efforts by December 20, 2014.
There was throughout lacking of coordinated efforts and the actions were surrounded by lies. On 13 December 2014, The Water Transport Minister enraged the environmentalists and general people by claiming that the spill impact would cause 'no major damage' to the mangroves. The activists promptly decried his statement and expressed concern about the biodiversity of the 140,000-hectare Sundarbans, which is one of the largest mangroves in the world, and a sanctuary for rare Ganges and Irabati dolphins, the Bengal tiger, estuarine crocodile and Indian python.
The minister was also criticized for not taking any major actions immediately after the incident. Government officials did not ask for any immediate help, suggestion or support from neighboring countries or experts to control the spillage or to minimize the damage. Maqsood Kamal, a Bangladeshi disaster management expert, blamed the authorities for their slow response to the catastrophe as he feared a long-term impact on the biodiversity of the area. Pauline Tamesis, Country Director of the UNDP in Bangladesh, also expressed alarm over the incident and the United Nations expressed deep concern over the oil spill, urging the Bangladesh Government to impose a complete ban on the movement of commercial vessels through the forest.
Later, the Economic Relations Division of the government sent a letter to the United Nations Bangladesh office on 15 December 2014 seeking help to collect oil to which they responded but all these late responses could not help near to as much as it could have at the earlier stages.
The impact of this oil spill will be three ways on the wild life of the Sundarbans, the mangrove ecosystem and the local people living in the surrounding villages by the rivers.
Environmentalists and experts expressed their concerns saying that due to the oil spill, normal life of the aquatic organisms of Sundarbans will be hampered as animals like dolphins come above the water to take a breath. Wild lives near the river have a life risk because they couldn't breathe due to the smell of oil. Some images published indicated the disaster killed some animals. On 18 December 2014, two dead otter, an endangered species, was recovered by forests department workers from the river Shela that had died from ingestion of oil. The team of forest department spotted several animals smeared with oil at the Chandpai range of the Sundarbans.
The oil spill has also posed a major threat to the food cycle of the forest. Reports published in various sources showed that the primary level of the food cycle, that is the microorganisms, is dying off.
Sundarbans is known as one of the largest mangrove forest of the world as fringing the land with long, twisted roots, mangrove trees have evolved to withstand the relentless tugging of a powerful tide and at the edge of the water, the mangrove's sprawling root system is the land's front-line defense against erosion. Different species of mangroves are keys to the region's intricate chain of life that creates our Sundarbans forest and famously, the mangrove forest holds one of the last major tiger populations on Earth.
The local villagers residing by the riverside at Sundarbans will also face effects on different terms. They have already faced suffocation from the smell of oil. These people will have several skin diseases, food poisoning, physical problems etc. The children might even face mental disorders as well as autism may be spread among the infants. Eating fishes and drinking water from the oil spilled rivers and banks will drive these disastrous effects on the local residents.
Now this was the third vessel to sink in the area in last three years. The other two carried fly ash and fertilizer. Environmentalists said dolphins would be the first to take the hit and will soon start suffocating. The thick layer of oil on the surface of the river will cut down the dissolved oxygen. The coastal mangrove goes under water twice a day in high tide. Once the water recedes, a thick layer of oil will cover the vegetation and rinse into the soil. Deer survive on this vegetation and tigers feed on them.
In the long run, both animals could suffer, environmentalists said.
While the area is a sophisticated and protected terrain, it was not supposed to be used for commercial vehicles' route. But in 2011, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) opened a temporary route through the Shela River. The move drew extreme protests from environmentalists and also Bangladesh forest officials. The route has been suspended for now. Last September, UNESCO had written to the Bangladesh government seeking suspension of the water route through the Sundarbans immediately and asked the government to send a compliance report by February as they had threatened to withdraw its world heritage site tag and list the Sundarbans as endangered world heritage site instead.
In spite of this huge disaster occurred, based on the demand of the drivers, officers and owners of cargo vessels and the port users, the Water Transport Ministry decided to open the Shela River route on 6 December, 2014 and more than 400 vessels passed through this route on 7 December, 2014. Though the Government officials were very slow to response in damage minimization after the oil-spill incident, they were actually pretty fast to open this route again as this unbelievable action was taken only after 26 days of the catastrophic event.
We hope the Government start listening to the environmentalists and experts rather than some short-sighted businessmen to save Sundarbans. Let not destroy the gift that was unconditionally provided to us by the nature. We hope our profit-oriented mentality will not be the cause of extinction of wildlife and mangrove ecosystem and also the disasters in human life.
Kaushik Ahmed is a freelance writer