21 February 2018
Why the Sundarban oil spill was a disaster waiting to happen.
The Southern Star VII left port early in the morning, riding the low tide towards the sea. It was still dark when the tanker, laden with 357,000 litres of furnace oil, turned off onto the Shela River, which winds into the depths of the Sundarban, the world’s largest mangrove forest. The tanker was leaving from Mongla, Bangladesh’s second-most important port, whose only connection to the rest of the country, then, was through the vulnerable ecosystem of the forest.
As they pushed on into the forest, the fog thickened. The Southern Star VII had barely been on the move for two hours when the captain ordered the anchor to be lowered: it was impossible to navigate the milky brew among the mangroves.
The morning of 9 December 2014 was cold, remembers Showkat, one of the tanker’s lascars. The captain wore a heavy jacket and boots as he stood on deck with two other crew members, peering into the fog, listening to the sound of an approaching motor grow louder. “There’s a ship coming,” Showkat recalls the captain saying. “Are they going to run into us?”
Around dawn, a cargo vessel named Total rammed into the Southern Star, puncturing the hull and sliding across its deck, ripping open its six oil tanks. The captain and the crew members on deck fell into the water, while the others clambered onto the bridge – the only part of the tanker still out of the water. “By the grace of god we were saved from death,” Showkat says.
Instead of helping the shipwrecked sailors, Total continued to sail away. It was apprehended later in the day near Dhaka. According to the local fisherman and policeman present at the site, a fishing trawler discovered the Southern Star a few hours after the accident and alerted the authorities. The four sailors on the bridge were rescued, as were two other members of the crew who had managed to swim to the riverbank. The captain’s mutilated body was found washed ashore five days later.
Even as the ship’s crew was rescued, the tanker began to leak its cargo into the sensitive ecosystem around it. The oil from the Southern Star floated on the water and was dispersed by it. It coated the banks of the Shela river and flowed downstream for many kilometres. Later, the high tide pushed the oil back upstream, and the black slick hit the village of Joymuni, flowing out of the Shela river and onto the Poshur river leading north to Mongla port.
As the oil flowed tens of kilometres away from the spill site, frantic meetings were held at the Ministry of Environment. It banned all ships from entering the Shela river and set up a committee to assess the damage. But without a contingency plan in place, the ministry and its Forest Department wasted days doing little to stop the spread of the oil or to clean it up. Untrained in handling such a crisis, officers did what seemed intuitive.
They tried power-spraying the oil off the plants without success. The Forest Department reportedly attempted to bury the sludge, a move that was sternly criticised by the media and environmentalists, because it would cause even more damage. It considered using a chemical dispersant to dissolve the oil, but then decided against adding potentially toxic chemicals to an already endangered ecosystem. Finally, almost a week after the oil spill, the government asked the UN for assistance.
This oil spill in the reserve forest exhibits the indifference with which the Bangladesh government has dealt with the possibility of such disasters and how economic considerations regularly trump environmental issues in the Sundarban. The growth of fish farming, a USD 500 million export industry, has permanently altered the landscape. Wetlands have been dried, forests cut down and rivers filled with sludge to make space for the huge pools in which fish grow. Ships from Mongla now have to take a convoluted route through the forest, because numerous governments have let these farms silt up the original shipping route and refrained from dredging it.
The government has also failed to set up an oil-spill contingency plan despite being advised to do so in an assessment done in 2002, ignoring its obligation under international treaties it signed in 2004. “Actually, we don’t know which ministry is responsible for reacting to a spill like this,” says an official at the Ministry of Environment.
As a result, the cleanup was left to villagers, who scooped the oil off the riverbanks and out of the water with their bare hands, with neither protective gear nor any training. Pictures from the weeks immediately after the spill show men, women and children waist deep in oily water, storing the black liquid in kitchen pots and then pouring it into makeshift pits on land. Many subsequently complained of skin problems and it remains unclear if there will be long-term health impacts.
As boats putter into the Sundarban, the bustle of Bangladesh fades away. The bends of the rivers leave behind the busy port of Mongla and the many ships anchored before it. Civilisation disappears behind tree tops. There are no electricity lines here, no cellphone towers, no buildings and very few people – a rare thing in the most densely populated country in the world. Instead, there are camouflaged forest stations and an opportunity to see rare wildlife, most significantly, the Bengal tiger, of which only a few hundred remain.
The Sundarban sits at the mouth of several of the major distributaries of the Jamuna and Padma rivers on either side of the India-Bangladesh border. Like other distributaries, the Shela river too flows towards the sea during the low tide. But during the high tide, rising water from the Bay of Bengal flows upriver. Twice a day, water levels rise and the network of tiny channels all over the forest fill up. Then, as the water level of the rivers fall, they drain out. The entire tidal river system is brackish, and it is this salinity that characterises mangrove forests.
The landscape of dense green forest stretches for more than 10,000 square kilometres – an area roughly as large as Lebanon – and is home to an incredible diversity of aquatic and terrestrial life. Its 693 animal species, besides the Bengal tiger, include the bright red fiddler crab, with one pincer much larger than the other, and the Irrawaddy dolphins, whose dorsal fin is no more than a hump. Its 334 species of plants include a dense shield of trees that form a barrier against deadly hurricanes that thrash the southern coast every year during the monsoons.
The Sundarban was declared a reserve forest by the Government of Bangladesh in 1977 and a UNESCO Heritage site in 1997. These legal protections prohibit any activity that threatens its marine and aquatic ecosystems – including the plying of commercial cargo. Yet, major highways have developed through the Sundarban in recent years.
Given its environmental importance, it is surprising that no contingency plan is in place to protect the Sudarban against oil spills. Almost a decade ago, such a plan was on the cusp of being set up. At the time, modernisation of Bangladesh’s biggest port at Chittagong had been proposed. While ships did not travel through the forest, there were plans for a barge route through the Sundarban connecting Mongla to Chittagong. “It made sense to look at port sanitation and oil spill management,” says Albab Akanda, a former employee of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The government commissioned an assessment from the ADB on the potential damages of an oil spill and possible response plans. The study cost USD 1 million and recommended the creation of a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan as a ‘first priority’. It also prepared manuals on assessing and monitoring oil spills in the forest and held a series of workshops in the summer of 2002 for government officials.
The modernisation of Chittagong Port never went ahead and perhaps this is why all knowledge about managing oil spills was lost by the time there was an actual oil spill. In an op-ed for Dhaka Tribune, Akanda laments: “It is a pity that, despite the study, detailed recommendations, and intensive training, nothing substantive was done to institutionalise those recommendations.”
However, there were other lapses, too. The oil spill response assessment mentions a National Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, drafted by the Ministry of Shipping, which was never enacted. Despite numerous attempts to contact the ministry, no officials were available for comment.
The village of Joymuni stretches along the northern bank of the Shela river. It is the last human settlement before the forest begins. The people are fishermen or fish traders, living in small shacks made from clay and corrugated iron sheets, their livelihoods earned by catching young fish and shrimp from the rivers and selling them to the giant fish farms that stretch out northwards.
Jahangir, a fisherman in his late forties with a closely cropped beard, lives in a small compound next to the Shela river. After the spill, unable to fish in the oily waters and in the absence of government action, it was villagers like Jahangir who effectively cleaned up the river. “The banks were black with the sludge,” he remembers. “When we stepped into the water, our clothes were immediately ruined.” He and other fishermen barricaded the mouths of smaller channels with bamboo and nets to keep out the oil.
Signs of the amateur clean-up remain in the village weeks after their work ended. Pots and buckets, blackened with oil, stand in front of the villagers’ huts. Blackened nets lie discarded by the river and young men have inscribed their names on walls in deep black, oily writing. Jahangir’s home contains the most prominent sign: a bamboo enclosure holding the remaining oily waste, a mass of dried stalks and leaves covered in black. Three months after the oil spill, they have still not been removed.
On the third day after the spill, the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation set up an outpost to buy back the oil, paying up to 40 Takas (USD 0.50) per litre. Given this additional incentive, the fishermen launched into the cleanup with their own boats and bare hands. “Had we known sooner that they were going to buy back the oil, we could have collected much more right from here,” says Jahangir. In total they sold back a reported 68,200 litres – less than a fifth of the spilled oil.
The villagers collected the sludge, then heated and filtered it. The liquid had mixed with the dead vegetation, from which they squeezed out as much oil as they could. Without provisions for disposing the solid remains, the villagers initially piled it on the shore, burned it and buried the chemical waste in the ground.
Days into the operation, volunteers from Dhaka arrived and worked with them to create a temporary solution: makeshift enclosures, like those in Jahangir’s yard. The bamboo structures are the size of a small hut, lined with blue tarpaulin sheets. The volunteers convinced the villagers to dig up the oil waste and dump it in the enclosures to be removed in the future. Later, the Forest Department followed suit and built three more such enclosures.
One of the volunteers, the musician and entrepreneur Anusheh Anadil, reported of gruesome conditions. Without protective gear, the villagers had developed skin rashes from exposure to the oil. A number of villagers had lost their animals that had eaten contaminated plants or swum in the toxic water. One fifth of the villagers claimed loss of livestock. When interviewed by the UN and government experts, weeks later, almost half of the villagers reported difficulty in breathing, burning eyes, headaches or vomiting.
After the spill, environmentalists, journalists, scientists and government officials flocked to the Sundarban to assess the damage. They documented cases of oiled birds, frogs, otter and crocodiles and, in one instance, a dead dolphin. All noted the blackened plants along the banks of the river. But some say the Sundarban has been in luck. The tide during the winter is lower than at other times in the year, as a result the oil did not enter further into the forest.
One of the first officials at the site was Nurul Karim, additional secretary with the Ministry of Environment. On 11 December 2014, he led the ministry’s committee, comprising of nine officials and scientists, to the forest. “We saw the oiled grass along the river, but also that there was no immediate damage,” says Karim. His committee’s report noted that the oiled plants would probably die, but that the forest would recover within a year of the spill. He adds, “Forests like this have a natural resilience”.
The report played down the damage, arguing that aquatic animals were unlikely to have been affected by the spill, even as a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society reported seeing dolphins. Brian Smith, who was cited in the report, however, says that he was misunderstood: he had indeed observed dolphins, but they were too far away for their health to be assessed. “Problems may occur later from long-term exposure to the oil and/or from declines in their fish and crustacean prey,” Smith writes. Three days later he reported a dead dolphin, but he did not know why it died.
Like the ministry’s report, a joint assessment by the Bangladesh government and the UN, conducted two weeks after the spill, also concludes that the effect of the oil spill on plant and wildlife was “limited in scope”. It too described the oiled plants along the river and observed 108 animals, but found that only few were covered in oil. “We only did a rapid assessment of visible signs,” says the team’s field coordinator, Alamgir Hossain, environmental analyst at the UN’s development programme. He adds, “We assume that there are invisible effects, which we were not able to study.”
The effects of oil spills in mangrove forests are often not immediately clear. A paper by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that damage to larger trees happens in the long-term, with medium-sized trees beginning to die over the first year after a spill, and larger trees dying up to five years after a spill. Over the past decades a number of oil spills have happened in mangroves around the world, but it is difficult to draw conclusions from them regarding the Sundarban spill. Mangroves are a diverse set of forests and the effects will often depend on the type of oil spilled.
However, in two cases, long-term effects of oil spills on mangrove forest have been established. In April 1986, between 60,000 and 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled out of a storage tank of a refinery in Panama and washed onto the shoreline of mangroves growing on the Caribbean coast. Five months later, researchers found a fringe of trees dying along the shoreline. Five years later, they noted that the oil in the soil was still affecting seedling growth.
In 1984, scientists from the United States began a long-term study of oil spills in Panama by contaminating two sites with crude oil, of which one of the sites was treated with dispersant. A third site was set up as a control. Scientists observed that ten years after the contamination, almost half the trees at the oiled site had died – even though just a year after the contamination the site seemed stable with only 17 percent of the trees dead. Only after 29 years, in 2013, did the researchers declare the number of adult trees had been restored.
These studies suggest that the effects of the Sundarban oil spill may not yet be apparent. According to the NOAA, the effects of oil spills on mangroves are the worst when the spill affects areas away from the tides. The fact that the Sundarban oil spill seems to be limited to the river banks and exposed to tides means that the forest may have been lucky. A researcher returning to the site in early March, almost four months after the spill, reported that there were few visible signs of the oil spill to be found.
On the same day as Karim visited the site, two weeks before the UN team, another group of researchers began studying the effects of the oil spill. It is the only study, which goes beyond the immediately visible and presents a chemical analysis of the water and soil, and paints a far more drastic picture than the government’s reports.
Three days after the spill, Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, Professor of Environmental Science at the nearby Khulna University, led a team of researchers into the forest rivers. For two weeks they travelled through the reserve in small country boats and took regular samples from 15 contaminated and three uncontaminated sites across 1200 square kilometres. In the contaminated areas, Chowdhury and his team measured 995 milligrams of oil per litre of water, while in uncontaminated areas this value was at 8 milligrams. They found similar results for their soil samples. “10 milligrams per litre already make water toxic for life,” says Chowdhury. The team found drastically reduced plankton counts and fewer seedlings along the banks. A number of larger animals covered in oil were also spotted. The number of fish species had reduced by two-thirds. There were few living crabs and snails, but no dolphins.
Despite all differences, the authors of the studies agree that a contingency plan needs to be put in place, so that an ‘unluckier’ disaster does not ruin the world’s largest mangroves. Chowdhury sounds resigned, “The only thing to be done now is to study the effects of the spill – and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Preventing an accident like the Sundarban oil spill is not impossible. Five years earlier, a collision such as the one between the Southern Star VII and the Total would have been much more unlikely – simply because the ships would not have been allowed to travel through the reserve. Since 2011, however, the usual shipping route, the Mongla-Ghasiakhali channel that bypasses the Sundarban, has become unusable for ships. And since then ships have begun using the Shela river.
An accident in the reserve forest was a disaster waiting to happen.
The land along the Mongla river were once forests and wetlands, but now they are lined on either side by embankments with water gates. Behind them, shallow but vast pools of saline water stretch out, the homes of young fish and shrimp as they grow to maturity to be exported. Tidal rivers already carry a lot of sediment and are prone to siltation. The forests and wetlands where the river would once overflow during high tides and deposit sediments are now sealed off by embankments such as these. So the process of siltation has sped up, while the government has failed to keep up with dredging work.
The drastic death of the former shipping route is documented in satellite photography. Shahidul Islam, professor for Geography at the University of Dhaka, has been studying them for years. Images from the year 2000 show ships of varying sizes travelling up and down the river. In images from ten years later, the rivers are still there, though they had shrunk a little. Images from 2013, however, show the river shrunk to a fraction of its former width with no ships on it.
The government could have easily kept the river alive by routinely dredging up silt from the bed, says Islam.“Trying to revive a dead river is quite different from maintaining one that is healthy.” Today, the small boats carrying tourists can only travel up the Mongla River during the high tide and must return as soon as the low tide begins. If they are delayed, even these shallow boats become grounded. Boatmen say that parts of the river dry out completely during the low tide.
“The tragedy of this spill would never have happened, if the government had heeded its own policies,” says Islam. “They prohibit any activity that is damaging to forest and aquatic ecosystems.” But even with commercial ships plying the Sundarban route, there were several other things that the government could have done, he says. More stringent regulations about at what times and under what conditions high-risk vessels may travel vulnerable routes, and higher construction standards for oil tankers could have also prevented the disaster.
At the Ministry of Environment, Karim says that for the government environmental concerns are ‘balanced’ with economic considerations, though economics often supersedes the environment and large corporate and state interests come before the interests of the locals.
For the communities living around the forest, the Sundarban is a lifeline. It provides livelihood for a majority of people in the region and supplies them with thatch and driftwood. Most of the region’s people are directly or indirectly dependent on fish, wood or honey from the forest. About 20 kilometres upstream from the spill site, the port city of Mongla is heavily dependent on tourism generated by the Sundarban.
And yet, just 14 kilometres away from the forest, thousands have been evicted from their homes to make way for a coal-fired power plant, the Rampal project, a joint venture between India’s state owned National Thermal Power Corporation and Bangladesh Power Development Board. Environmentalists say the plant will devastate the forest with its emissions, solid ash waste, and water consumption. Almost 5 million tonnes of coal that will supply the power plant each year will be transported through the Sundarban.
The USD 850 billion Norwegian Global Pension Fund recently withdrew from this project, citing unacceptable risks to the environment. The Bangladesh government, however, is drawing up plans for a second power plant adjacent to the first.
After the oil spill there was a short flurry of activity. The government filed a 1 billion Taka (USD 13 million) suit for compensation against the owners of the Southern Star VII and Total. The Ministry of Environment, formally responsible for the Sundarban, banned ships on the Shela river, stranding about 500 of them on either side of the route. Though they were allowed three weeks later, the river remains closed during foggy and rough weather.
While the government has struggled to get dredging underway on the Ghashiakhali channel over the past years, it quickly moved in a dozen machines to begin removing silt from the Mongla river. Currently, dredgers sit along the route, blocking any other boats or ships from using its small width, while pipes run along the river and onto land owned by the Shipping Ministry along the banks, spewing up gray, sandfilled water.
At the UN office, Alamgir Hossain says that there has been a revival of interest in oil spill contingency planning in the ministries. At the Ministry of Environment, Karim says that the government intends to implement a number of recommendations made by the joint assessment of the UN and the government. Among them are the enactment of the Marine Environment Conservation Act, drafted in 2004 but never put into force, and the implementation of the ‘International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness’, which Bangladesh signed in 2004.
It remains unclear when Bangladesh will finally have an oil spill contingency plan. What are the odds of another accident in the forest? Just two months after the 9 December collision, another vessel carrying coal was struck in the Sundarban, but narrowly avoided a similar fate. In May 2015 a ship carrying 500 tonnes of fertiliser sank in a Sundarban river after hitting an island.
~Lalon Sander is a former reporter for the Bangladeshi daily New Age and currently an editor for the German daily taz.die tageszeitung.
~Naushad Ali Husein is a Dhaka-based reporter and photographer. He has worked for the Bangladeshi newspaper New Age, and in Canada for Globe and Mail.
~This reportage was originally published in July 2015.