Wednesday, December 24th, 2014
The following is a report on the recent oil spill in the Sundarbans region by Bangladeshi activist & mountaineer Wasfia Nazreen. Raised in Khluna a stone’s throw from the affected area, she has witnessed industrialization affect her homeland in unforeseeable ways. She is a founder of Bangladesh on Seven Summit and is National Geographic’s 2014/15 Adventurer of the Year.
Children between 10 years and 16 years are working to recover the oil (Photo: Arati Kumar-Rao).
On December 9th, our country was hit with one of the worst environmental disasters to date. The Southern Star-7, belonging to MS Harun & Company, carrying 357,000 liters of furnace oil, was hit by another cargo vessel and sank in the Shela River of Sundarbans.
It is home to the single largest chunk of mangrove forest in the world, an already fragile ecosystem. Meaning “beautiful forest” in my native language, Bengali, the southern Sundarbans is home to three wildlife sanctuaries declared UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1997.
Sundarbans has from time unknown worked as a natural protective barrier for Bangladesh against increasingly frequent storm surges, as a sediment trap in the ever-changing Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, and as a breeding ground for fish and crustaceans supporting the food security of the densely populated country. Amongst the many rare, endangered and threatened plant and animal species that she boasts, she is home to one of the last viable populations of Bengal tigers.
The oil spill occurred in one of the three wildlife sanctuaries declared in 2012 for the protection of the endangered Irrawaddy and Ganges River dolphins, and spread across an 80 kilometer stretch of the Sundarbans mangrove waterways. At least 20 canals connected with the Shela River as well as sections of the Passur River, a major river between the Eastern and Western parts of the Sundarbans, are also affected.
Padma oil, the state entity responsible for the sunken vessel, introduced a “buy back” program for a below-average price, in the community whose livelihood is already in jeopardy. Currently, many children are vomiting and being reported to have fallen sick after serving in this initiative. Bangladesh’s government has been severely criticized for not delivering gloves or basic relief materials. Doctors and health experts are just being rushed from the capital and other cities through individual efforts.
For two days the furnace oil seeped into the Shela River, leaving riverbanks looking as if they were marked with tar. After two full days, the owner of the ship used a Bangladeshi rescue ship to salvage his wrecked vessel. At the time of this rescue, the Bangladesh Coast Guard, Navy, Mongla Port Authority and Forest Department representatives were present. Though four out of the six compartments in the vessel were destroyed, all of the oil had seeped out as all the compartments are inter-connected. In the morning after the salvation, the owners reported that barely a few hundred litres of oil remained.
However, this is not the first time that a spill has occurred. Two similar incidents on September 12th and 30th, with a spillage of 633 metric tonnes of cement and 600 metric tonnes of coal ash, respectively, also affected the Sundarbans Forest. All these abusive and destructive practices come with irreversible consequences. Their long-term effects will challenge generations to come. It is not possible to protect the country’s wildlife without ensuring healthy and diverse ecosystems — we did learn that in middle school!
Rampal Power Plant’s Deathtrap
A joint partnership between India’s state owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Bangladesh Power Development Board promises to bring us our nation’s largest power plant, even though most of us do not want it on our land.
Just 14 kilometers north of the Sundarbans, covering 1834 acres of land at barely sea-level, the proposed 1320 MW coal-fired power plant project has put the livelihood of 500,000 inhabitants under threat. With construction underway, it was met with heavy protests last year.
A number of the cases report that the local Member of Parliament and his cohorts threatened the landowners to leave and many allege that the landowners were not properly compensated for their acquired land. Of those that sought compensation, only the ones with political connections to the ruling party won the battle.
In the name of “Development”
The construction of the coal-fired power plant in Rampal is not the only industrial development that is underway. Despite all of the protests against it, the government allowed another local power supplier, Orion Power Ltd, to set up a 565 megawatt, coal-fired power plant near Sundarbans. The Orion power plant is being developed on 200 acres of land just 12 kilometres from the Sundarbans without the legally required environmental clearance from the authorities, as widely reported in local media.
Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur, Director of Training & Education for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP) tells me that the construction of a 50,000-tonne grain silo and a “new port” at Joymoni, a settlement opposite the Sundarbans, along with the proposed Padma bridge, have attracted investors into the Mongla area, even though the Asian Development Bank withdrew plans to fund the port in 2012.
“Due to the siltation of the Ghashiakhali Channel and Passur River, which is also the main cause of Mongla port ‘dying,’ the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority rerouted the shipping route through the Sundarbans in 2011. In January 2012 the Government declared three new wildlife sanctuaries for the protection of threatened freshwater dolphins, all of which are on the new shipping route,” said Mansur.
Most of the land plots between Mongla and Joymoni have been sold to private enterprises, and one only needs to do a search on bikroy.com, a popular Bangladeshi classifieds website, to find what is up for land grabs. Furthermore, the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, a government entity, has built 14 reservoir tanks in Mongla with a capacity of 100,000 tones.
Let’s not forget that legally, no industrial development is allowed within ten kilometers from a Reserved Forest without the Government’s permission and a clearance certificate from the Department of Environment. Our “leaders” seem to have forgotten about the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that Bangladesh signed on 5th June 1992 and ratified on 3rd May 1994.
Almost two weeks after the disaster, an escorted UN team has just departed for the forest. We wait to see their findings.
Ammu, my mother, was scared of the water that merged eventually with the ocean. As her most trusted friend, I would always attempt to take the lead, even though as a child I remember I was only pretending that I was not afraid. To have to step through, stretching my legs as far as I could, so I wouldn’t miss the rope steps of a make-shift ladder onto the boats or ships that trolled. To hear the silent rage of Bay of Bengal under the open night sky, to learn of Bonbibi (guardian spirit of the forest), sea-monsters, djinns and pirates inside the pressured chambers of the vessels, was where it all began. Adventure. The quest to explore.
I still remember the first few rides through the forest, calm sticky breezes, often glorified with the shyest rays of sunlight, filtering onto the birds through the branches… experiences I can undoubtedly be grateful for enabling me to open my heart from a very early stage in life.
While the endangered Bengal tiger is what Sundarbans is most famous for, she has an unparalleled biodiversity. My favorite of all her species was the spotted deer that would never fail to greet me with their doe-eyes, though always from a distance. Even though I longed to be their friend, I remember seeing a fear in their eyes and not understanding at that time why these beautiful, wise beings were so afraid of us, mere humans.
Today, decades later and living in the Bangladeshi capital of synthesized consumption, Dhaka, I reflect on all of the injustice we have allowed — and I see in their eyes again why they were so afraid.