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Home > Environment, Health and Social Justice > Dec 2014 Oil Spill Disaster in the Sundarbans - Selected Reports and (...)

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Dec 2014 Oil Spill Disaster in the Sundarbans - Selected Reports and Commentary

16 December 2014

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[a short compilation of selected reports and commentary in the Bangladeshi and India Media]

Prothom Alo - Dec 15, 2014

Editorial: What planet does the minister live on?

When the shipping minister said that there would be no harm done to the Sundarbans by the oil spill, he displayed supreme ignorance of what damages could be caused by the oil spreading around the coast. Experts say that the oil will endanger the plants, trees, animals and birds of the Sundarbans. There will be a real threat to biodiversity.The picture of a dead dolphin appeared in an English daily yesterday. But the minister chooses to be blind and deaf.

The tanker capsize will have short-term and long-term impact on the Sundarbans. The immediate danger is obvious. But if effective measures are not taken to remove the oil, there will be serious damage to the mangrove forest, its flora and fauna. On what basis did the minister say there has been no harm or there will be no harm? How could he say so?

When the tanker sank and over 350 thousand litres of oil spilled into the river, two things should have been done immediately. One was to use floating booms to ensure the oil would spread no further. The other was to remove the oil from the river. This requires special technology. It requires trained personnel.

The import of furnace oil in recent times has gone up at least 20 times. Such substances are called ’HazMat’ or hazardous materials and required special caution when transported. The ministry violated this and had no precautions in place in the case of any possible accident.

Motor vessels plying though the Sundarbans are a violation of local and international laws. It is essential to identify who are responsible for allowing vessels to ply through the Sundarbans and action should be taken accordingly.

It is imperative to use the initiative of the local people and, through coordinated efforts, remove the oil. There is no scope for the minister to remain impassive.

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Dhaka Tribune - December 11, 2014
Editorial

No compromises with Sundarbans’ safety
Act quickly to clean up this spill and prevent future environmental risks

We call on the government to urgently provide more resources to the BIWTA to help clean up the 350,000 litres of furnace oil which threaten the precious ecosystem of the Sundarbans, following the capsize of the oil tanker Southern Star Seven in the Sela River on Tuesday.

There is no time to delay in getting all necessary support to mitigate the environmental consequences of this catastrophic accident.

A key dolphin habitat and sanctuary has already been inundated by this oil spill. The more time that is lost in stemming and cleaning up the flow of oil, the more oil is likely to wash up and remain among forest vegetation and topsoil. This may cause huge damage to the ecosystem of this unique World Heritage site and harm the food chain of the Sundarbans’ two major animals, deer and tigers.

The government has to treat this incident as a matter of the utmost national priority. It is deeply concerning that this accident is the result of not one but two oil tankers hitting each other as they both travelled along a route prohibited for all kinds of large vessels.

We must not compound the illegality and recklessness which underlies this accident to be compounded by delays in acting to protect the environment from this wholly preventable oil spill.

The probe committee formed to investigate this accident must take firm action against the owners and operators of the vessels responsible and recommend precautionary investments to improve oil distribution networks to prevent vessels being tempted to use this illegal route in future.

We cannot risk compromising the future of the Sundarbans.
- See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/editorial/2014/dec/11/no-compromises-sundarbans%E2%80%99-safety

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Dhaka Tribune - december 10, 2014

The Sundarbans in big trouble
Abu Bakar Siddique
Oil spill from a massive capsized tanker severely jeopardising biodiversity in the forest

The Sundarbans is now facing a major environmental disaster, after a vessel carrying over 350,000 litres of furnace oil capsized in Sela River, as spill particularly jeopardises a dolphin sanctuary, the local food chain and the entire local ecology.

With various authorities, who neither have the experience nor the capability to handle such a case, trying to pass the responsibility on to each other instead of making a move, the situation is getting worse by the minute since the capsize took place in the early hours yesterday.

As of filing of this report around 15 hours after the incident, no sign of a rescue operation was reported in the area.

“Oil tanker Southern Star Seven was anchored in the river because of dense fog. It capsized around 6am at a place inside the Chandpai Range under West Zone when another empty tanker named MT Southern hit it because of poor visibility,” Amir Hossain Chowdhury, divisional forest officer of the Sundarbans, told the Dhaka Tribune.

When contacted, Md Shafiqul Haq, a director of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), said rescuing or managing oil tankers is not part of their job description; they only deal with passenger vessels.

When contacted, AKM Fakhrul Islam, chief engineer of the government’s Shipping Department, said their task is only to register vessels and recruit marine crews; hence, rescuing a sinking vessel is not their responsibility.

The route that the capsized vessel took is prohibited for all kinds of large vessels. Researchers and pro-environment groups have for many years been repeatedly warning the government against the use of this route.

Water resources expert Ainun Nishat told the Dhaka Tribune yesterday: “Now is not the time to think which route is legal and which is not. Sundarbans is in big trouble. Our first priority should be preventing the oil spill immediately.”

Ecology in jeopardy

The Sela River is known as a sanctuary for sweet-water Irawaddy and brackish-water Ganges dolphins. So, these marine creatures will be the first in the line of victims of the oil spill.

“They will soon find breathing hard because the thick layer of oil over the river water will reduce the level of dissolved oxygen,” ecology and biodiversity researcher Pavel Partha told the Dhaka Tribune yesterday.

As a coastal mangrove forest, the vegetation in the Sundarbans gets inundated twice a day by high tides. Now that there is oil, as water recedes with low tide, the oil will remain on the vegetation and the forest topsoil.

The vegetation is the main food of various kinds of deer that live in the dense forest surrounding the river. The deer, in turn, is one of the main foods of the Bengal tigers. So, in the long run, the population of deer and tigers – the two best known animals from the Sundarbans – will be affected.

The mangrove ecosystem of Sundarbans is primarily made up of four kinds of salt-water trees: Sundari, Kewra, Goran, Poshur and Gol. These trees reproduce from the windfall seeds that fall on the ground.

As oil settles on the forest topsoil, these seeds will die and in the long run, the regeneration of the Sundarbans will be badly affected. That in turn will put the deer and different types of primates in trouble who depend on these trees for living.

These windfall seeds are the staple food of Pungash fish that also inhabit the Sela waters. This fish again is one of the main foods of crocodiles – a famous reptile from these forests.

If Pungash does not get anything to eat, they will die, eventually putting the lives of crocodiles at risk as well.

Our Khulna correspondent travelled to the troubled part of the forest yesterday afternoon and found that oil has already started settling on the vegetation and soil on the banks of the Sela River and in the moss on the water.

After talking to Giasuddin, owner of the capsized vessel, our correspondent reports that nobody has any idea about when the rescue may begin. Giauddin said his firm Harun and Company had been trying in their way to rescue the vessel.

Sources said the Forest Department does not have the necessary equipment for sucking up the oil from the water; that is why they are now waiting for the owner to pull out the vessel.

Hydrology and environment expert Ainun Nishat urged the government to take immediate steps to remove the vessel instead of playing “pass the cushion.”

He suggested the government may take help from the coastguard or the navy who have the equipment to suck up the oil.

The illegal route

Capsized tanker Southern Star Seven was carrying 357,664 litres of furnace oil to a power station in Gopalganj district from the Khulna oil depot when it capsized yesterday. The physical distance between Khulna and Gopalganj is not very much, but on water, it is a tedious roundabout journey.

The Sela River route that the Southern Star Seven was following is prohibited for all kinds of large vessels because it runs through deep forest and also is the dolphin sanctuary.

Then again, large vessels such as oil tankers do not have any option but to travel on Sela River because the legal route – Mongla-Ghosiakhali-Morelganj – has been unusable for more than three years because of excessive siltation.

The Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS), an autonomous body of the Water Resources Ministry, has been trying to press their recommendations to the government for a long time, even before the legal route went fully unusable in 2011. But their recommendations, for keeping the Chandpai dolphin sanctuary in Sela River safe, have never been heeded.

The CEGIS has warned that plying of large vessels in the sensitive channel will result in ecological imbalance in the area by causing sound pollution and riverbank erosion.

Yunus Ali, the chief conservator of forest, said a large number of vessels, more than 500 to be specific, including large barges and oil takers navigate through the deep forest using the Sela route.

He claimed that his department had held several meetings with the BIWTA for finding an alternate route, but without any success.

BIWTA Director Md Shafiqul Haq told the Dhaka Tribune that although passenger vessels sometimes capsized in the Sela River, not a single oil tanker has capsized in the Sundarbans before – not at least in the 30 years that he has been in service.

The Sundarbans

The Sundarbans is a unique habitat for a number of wildlife. Apart from the Bengal tiger, Gangetic and Irawaddy dolphin, primates, Indian fishing cat, Indian otter and spotted deer, many other prominent fauna populate the single biggest mangrove forest in the world.

The Sundarban harbours 334 species of trees, shrubs and epyphites and 269 species of wild animals.

The 1,39,700-hectare forest is a World Heritage Site of the Unesco where three wildlife sanctuaries – Sundarban East, Sundarban West and Sundarban South – are located.

The healthy existence of the forest is absolutely crucial for Bangladesh. In 2007, the Sundarbans, acting as a natural shield, weakened down devastating cyclonic storm Sidr, preventing it from inflicting irrevocable damage in the country.
— See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2014/dec/10/sundarbans-big-trouble

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The Hindu, Letter to the Editor, December 13, 2014

Oil spill in Sundarbans

The oil spill in the Sundarbans (International page, Dec.12) is easily the biggest disaster in any mangrove forest in the world. Previously there have been such spills in Indonesia, Panama, Nigeria, Australia and Puerto Rico, but which did not spread to a large area. That this spill will affect the livelihoods of those engaged in fishing and collecting honey and golpata from the forests and endangered species, is a given.

The long-term ecological damage will be in the form of oil sticking to the aerial roots of mangroves and the trees dying, not being able to breathe. Oil-coated leaves will affect wildlife that live off the leaves. Oil ingestion is guaranteed to cause internal organ damage. Endangered dolphins, otters, monitor lizards and microorganisms will gradually die. After an oil spill in Panama’s Bahia Las Minas, researchers observed the devastating effects on mangroves even five years later. One hopes that Bangladesh does not hesitate to ask for expertise in mitigating the ill-effects of the spill.

Rhys D’Cruz,

Mumbai
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The Daily Star - December 16, 2014

Shajahan vs Sundarbans
Sharier Khan

When oil vessel Southern Star-7 sank along with 3.58 lakh litres of furnace oil in the Shela river last week, the whole nation was shocked because the incident threatened the world’s biggest mangrove forest that is not just an asset of Bangladesh, but also of the whole world.

There are many mangrove forests in the world but there is just one Sundarbans — home of the Bengal tigers and hundreds of species of plants and animals. This forest has been providing livelihood to lakhs of poor people. But most importantly, this forest has been saving the Southwestern region from cyclones for hundreds of years — serving a significant natural purpose of forming the delta named Bangladesh.

But to ministers like Shajahan Khan, the hue and cry raised by environmentalists and others was just a farce. Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan while visiting the troubled Shela river on Saturday told the press that the oil slick would not harm the Sundarbans. He added that he had spoken to “foreign experts” who believed that there was nothing much to worry about.

The minister’s assurance came alongside the government’s move to salvage the situation by urging local villagers to collect the floating furnace oil from the water and sell it back to the government. The forest department itself has deployed around a hundred boats to collect the oil and till Sunday—in five days since the disaster—the authorities recovered around 18,000 litres of oil—which is insignificant.

Besides, the BIWTA had thought of using Propylene Glycol Ether—a chemical—to make the oil very dense, so that it can be easily netted. But experts and the environment department dismissed the idea as it would have further harmful effect.

According to the forest department assessment on Saturday, the oil slick has spread across an area of 350 square kilometres—affecting the forest and wildlife there. People have cited dead bodies of different animals including a dolphin. Alas, the government has declared the Sundarbans a dolphin sanctuary from 2011. It has around 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins.

The deaths of wild animals or some trees in the Sundarbans seem insignificant to the shipping minister whose responsibilities include determining the inland water transport routes through the Sundarbans, which borders on Mongla—the second sea port of the country. For the last several years, Shajahan Khan’s offices allowed plying of commercial vessels through the Shela and other rivers of the Sundarbans—because the actual route of Mongla-Ghasiakhali channel had lost navigability.

The Ghasiakhali channel was developed in 1974 as a shortcut to Mongla, bypassing the core forest. The route stretches through the Mongla river to Sannyasi to Morelganj to the Baleshwar river. It means: commercially using this route has lesser risk of damaging the Sundarbans. When it became completely unusable, the government had allocated Tk 76 crore to restore the route—but the BIWTA sat on it.

After the disaster, the BIWTA has suspended movement of vessels through the Shela river and has said that it would complete the dredging of the old route within a few months. It took a disaster for the BIWTA to ’consider’ the dredging while Minister Shajahan Khan could not care less about the performance of the BIWTA. Instead, on Sunday he announced that it would not be possible to stop commercial vessels from plying through the Sundarbans.

The outskirts of the Sundarbans have already become a target of land grabbers as well as industrialists. In addition to building a very large coal power plant, the government has plans to build an exclusive economic zone, while many private companies have erected signboards declaring upcoming industrial units to be set up there. Once the Rampal plant comes into operation, one can easily predict that the outskirts of the world heritage forest would become an industrial belt. This will bring in jobs and prosperity for the impoverished, disaster-prone region—and perhaps turn people back from the forest for their livelihood. But at the same time, it would increase the risk of a man-made disaster in the Sundarbans a hundred times more.

According to Dr Ainun Nishat, the country’s leading hydrological expert, the government did not demonstrate any sense of urgency from the first day till yesterday to address the situation. He said the government could still declare the situation as an emergency and deploy the Navy to clean up the mess as soon as possible.

While nobody can predict when an accident would take place—one can stay prepared for such an incident. Through this oil slick, the whole nation saw the bankruptcy of the government in handling such a disaster. The minister’s assurance of “no big damage” is just some hollow words and nobody is convinced by his blank assurance. Instead, the nation would feel better if he had the courage to take the responsibility of overseeing the health of the river routes inside the Sundarbans (and elsewhere) or bringing the BIWTC to the task.

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Business Standard Editorial Comment | New Delhi
December 15, 2014

The Sundarbans spill
India, Bangladesh need joint mitigating strategy

The collision of an oil tanker with a cargo vessel in the part of the Sundarbans that falls within Bangladesh has created an oil spill that is threatening the sensitive ecology of the area. Particularly at risk are the Irrawaddy and Ganga dolphins, the area being globally the most important home of the species. What makes the accident serious is that it has occurred near the Chadpai wildlife sanctuary, one of the two set up by Bangladesh in 2011, to protect diverse species ranging from the tiger, to crab and small fish. The entire Sundarbans area of 10,000 sq km is one of Unesco’s 32 World Heritage Sites, with its mangrove forests acting as a barrier against cyclones and sea erosion. The spill is reported to be 60 km long and could cause long-term ecological damage.

Oil spills can and do occur even if they should not, but the ability to tackle this particular one is impeded by various circumstances. A man-made international border runs through the natural ecological region of the Sundarbans, which is as underdeveloped as it is difficult to access. For their part, as the accident has occurred in Bangladesh and the spill has not entered India on first reckoning, the Indian authorities are waiting for request for help from Bangladesh. But the point is that a lot of damage can be done before all the resources available with both the countries can be deployed to tackle a man-made disaster that can have serious consequences for the region rich in flora and fauna. The Bangladesh government has sent an initial 10,000 litres of oil dispersants to break up the spill, but it is not known whether this is enough or not.

This accident has highlighted several shortcomings in the institutional arrangement - actually none exists - to tackle an event like this, which can turn into a disaster in an ecologically rich but sensitive region needing the highest protection but suffering from its natural footprint stretching across two countries. Unfortunately, there is no bilateral agreement to tackle such crises. The result is that quick mobilisation of adequate resources and their scientific deployment are impeded. It is vital to have such an agreement not just to tackle disasters but also to ensure the best protection of the entire Sundarbans even in normal times. After all, tigers, dolphins and fish do not take care to remain within particular national boundaries. Another issue that needs immediate attention is what safety precautions govern maritime traffic in the area. Do enough exist? If not, then they need to be defined immediately and monitored by the two countries. While this is in the nature of wartime manuals, to be used when needed, the two governments, while they talk to each other, should also evolve common norms to regulate tourism which too can take an ecological toll.

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AlalODulal.org -December 16, 2014

Sundarbans in Grave Danger

by Kallol Mustafa from Joymoni, Sundarbans
Translated by Tibra Ali for AlalODulal.org

Since the oil spill disaster started in the Sundarbans many ebbs and flows of the tide have come and gone. The thick and poisonous furnace oil reaches as far the water reaches during the high tide, through the Shela river to Pasur, Boleshwari rivers and the innumerable canals. Since the recovery of the sunken oil tanker Southern Star-7 it has been surrounded by oil containment rubber boom at the Chadpai Range ghat; If this had been done as soon as the accident had happened on the 9th of December, then the spread of the oil spill over such a vast area of the Sundarbans could have been avoided and the clean-up would have been much easier. But instead the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons-rich heavy fuel oil (HFO), or furnace oil, has spread all over the Sundarbans via the waterways, reaching even the farthest parts of the forest through the hundreds of canals. Even though 80 to 100 square kilometres of waterways and coastal vegetation have been polluted by the oil in this way, it has not yet been estimated how much of the interior land of the forest has also been polluted by the oil spill.
The rescued tanker surrounded by rubber boom.

The rescued tanker surrounded by rubber boom.

Due to the current the layer of oil slick floating on the river is relatively thin, although sunlight and oxygen cannot penetrate even this thin layer and reach the water beneath. This is pushing all the aquatic lifeforms including aquatic vegetation and fish to their demise. When the oil enters the still waters of the canals it s forming thick and impenetrable tar-like deposits, rising and lowering with the high- and low-tides. Even when the water goes down along the banks, the oil sticks to the slope of the mud-banks, junk gathers at the roots of the trees, the breathing roots, trunks and leaves. It looks as if someone had taken a black paint-brush and coloured all the trees. In the words of forest expert Razzak — As if a venomous black snake had tightened its coil around the trees of the Sundarbans. According to forester Baowali, during the high tide the oil pollution has in places polluted some of the drinking holes where tigers, deers and other animals go to drink water. The relatively higher parts of the forest that has so far been spared due to neap-tide will be inundated with pollution when the rip-tide comes if the layer of oil slick is not removed from the rivers and canals very soon. [. . .]
Full text at: http://alalodulal.org/2014/12/16/sundarbans-2/

P.S.

The above reports and commentary are reproduced here for educational and noncommercial use