Bangladesh Sundarban

Bangladesh’s Sundarban

By: Staff Reporter
The alarming rate of wrecks in the Sundarban raises a larger question. Why is there no alternative safer route envisaged in a time bound manner by Bangladesh?
Ecology

Four months after the calamitous 2014 Bangladesh Sundarban oil spill, the UNESCO World Heritage Site recently became victim to yet another similar fortuity. A large vessel containing 500 metric tonne (MT) of potash sank into the Sundarban, maculating the entire stretch of the protected eco sensitive area. The ship, MV Jabal-e-Nur, was on its way to Baghabari in Sirajganj from Harbaria in Mongla (Fig 1) when it struck a sandbar. It subsequently submerged as its keel ruptured in the middle.

According to local sources, the ship struck the sandbar at around 5 pm on May 3, 2015 and succumbed to the strong tidal waves while two rescue vessels tried to move the cargo during the high tide. As the cargo sank during high tide, the ship’s booty spread across a vast area of the mangrove forest and is speculated to impact the ecological balance, although no official reports have surfaced as of yet.

The Bangladesh Sundarban, the world’s largest tidal mangrove forest, is one of the most biodiverse places on the entire planet. About 40 per cent of it lies in India while the rest, with the densest outcrops lies in Bangladesh (unesco.org). Several endangered species like the Ganges River Dolphins, the rare Irrawady dolphins, the Royal Bengal tiger, the endemic river terrapin, the olive ridley turtle, the saltwater crocodile are found here. It also is inhabited by the horseshoe crab, known as a living fossil as it has been dated to 400 million years.

The MV Jabal-e-Nur incident is fourth in a succession of shipwrecks that have potentially threatened the ecodiversity of the Bangladesh Sundarban in last eight months. Two cement laden ship emptied all its content in September 2014, followed by a tanker carrying fly ash two weeks later, and the OT Southern Star-7 with 358,000 litres of heavy fuel oil in December, the same year.

The alarming rate of wrecks raises a larger question; why are commercial vehicles laden with pernicious chemicals allowed to ply across such an ecologically treasurable stretch keeping in mind that the Bangladesh government’s disaster management expertise is still at a deplorable level. Ironically, fishing is not allowed inside the Sanctuary. These devastating statistics demonstrates the Bangladesh government’s negligence in maintaining this World Heritage Site and exhibits how vulnerable the Sundarban is to the threats posed by industrial shipping.

Shipping activity in this region harms not only the environment and ecology but also poses a serious threat to human life as well. Professor Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, a teacher of Environmental Science of Khulna University said, “The cruising of water vessels causes serious harm to the Sundarban, which shields the coastal areas and the people from tidal waves and cyclones”.

The navigation route through the Sela River (Fig 1) is unauthorised, yet almost 200 boats and vessels carrying oil, fly ash, cement and other hazardous chemicals ply the route daily. Interestingly, the Bangladesh government opened the Sela river route just weeks after the 2014 Sundarban oil spill.

Fig. 1: Shipping routes through Bangladesh
Fig. 1: Shipping routes through Bangladesh

The OT Southern Star-7 accident actuated in December 9, 2014 on the Sela River. The vessel, laden with 3,50,000 litres of furnace oil, was at anchor at the confluence between the Sela and the Passur River enveloped in a dense river fog when a cargo vessel collided with it at wee hours of the morning. By December 17, the oil had spread over a 350 square km and then to a second river and a network of channels in Sundarban, which blackened the entire coastline. Reportedly the oil eventually spread to shroud an area of 34,000 hectares.

Until 2010, commercial vehicles utilised the Ghasiakhali River to commute between Mongla top Morrelganj and Chittagong. Consequently, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) closed the Mongla-Ghasiakali route encouraging the local strongmen to acquire the area for shrimp fishing farms. The GoB has also reportedly built embankments to protect these interests.

With the end of the Ghasiakhali River route, commercial interests were focused on the two nearest alternative rivers—the Sela and the Passur. Although the routes lead through ecologically vulnerable patches that house dolphin sanctuaries, protected habitats of crocodiles and migratory birds, commercial interests seldom comply with environmental regulations.

Moreover, with a proposed thermal power plant set to come up a few kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Sundarban, soon coal will need to be imported to the area. Without any progress in dredging the Ghasiakhali, traffic through the eco-sensitive mangroves is only set to increase.

Environmentalists in Bangladesh have been vocal in their response to the present transit route. People working on the grass root level have opined that the GoB needs to put a stop to the prevailing route through the forest as soon as possible. Apart from the Mongla-Ghasiakhali route, government could also work on navigability in the Atharabeki River.

“The dredging on the Ghasiakhali River is ongoing  in order to revive its navigability—but the progress of work is very slow. On the other hand, no government initiative is yet underway to restore the Atharabeki River. If the two routes are in good shape, the vessels will not need to sail through the forest,” opines Chowdhury.

Government sources affirm that the Mongla-Ghasiakhali was closed for five years due to siltation. Re-excavation work started last year and so far, an estimated 47 per cent of the job has been completed.

Sugata Hazra, director, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, also supported Chowdhury’s statement and stated that the GoB hasn’t undertaken any serious measures yet. “The May 4 incident magnifies the threat—putting a stop to plying commercial vessels through this route is the first step and the GoB should rejuvenate the alternate navigation route via Baleswar—if needed it can very well seek international help to protect the world heritage site”, he said.

Hazra also believes that cost consideration for a-round-about has prevented the GoB from opening up new shipping routes that avoid the Sundarban.

The effects of the present commercial shipping route are obvious. And to top it, the GoB is not armed with technology or human resource to handle mishaps of this magnitude. The government has also turned a deaf ear to the UN’s urging of imposing a ‘complete ban’ on the movement of commercial vessels through the Sundarban.

The GoB needs to treat this incident as the final blow and accord utmost priority to creating and managing alternative trade routes. It needs to address the illegality and recklessness which underlies these mishaps with utmost urgency.

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