24 September 2015
Neglect and misguided priorities ensured that the Sundarban oil spill was a disaster waiting to happen.
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 dolphin, 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 Sundarban 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 the 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.
~This is an extract from the reportage previously published in our quarterly issue Disaster Politics (Vol 28 No 2).
~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 later, in Canada, for Globe and Mail.