Oil Spillage Disaster in the Sundarbans and Other Questions

Khulna, 11 December 2014

One of the World's natural Heritage Site and Ramsar site is going through a severe disastrous situation after huge oil spillage in river Shela. Sundarbans, the largest single tract mangrove forest of the world is in threat now. A local oil-tanker 'OT Southern Star-7' sank with 367 metric ton furnace oil after a hit by another cargo vessel 'MT Total' in Shela River of the Sundarbans, which is 6 kilometers far from Mongla sea port. It is the second oil spillage in last twenty years. A foreign vessel named MV Pavlina sank near Mongla port with 193 metric ton of heavy oil. 

The place where it is happened is a wildlife sanctuary for aquatic fauna including rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphin, and also Bengal tiger, deer, wild boar etc. The concerned institutions which include Bangladesh Navy, Mongla Port Authority (MPA), Forest Department (FD), Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) or Bangladesh Shipping Corporation (BSC), Department of Environment (DOE) and Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC) failed to take an effective and immediate decision to reduce vulnerability of world largest single tract mangrove Forest.

So, people including the environmentalists are asking three questions repeatedly: Is Sundarbans capable of recovering the damage alone? Who is or are responsible for this devastating accident? And how the oil spill can be removed? The questions are short and easy, but the answers maybe long, because the accident is a consequence of ignorance, bad governance and worthless activities. 

It is clear that the oil tanker and its owners are primarily responsible for the catastrophic incident. The tanker was a sand carrying cargo, and they converted it to an oil tanker without any security measure. So, it is clear that they considered nothing but profit to run a marine cargo service. But are they alone at this side? There are several questions can be raised.

How and under which process a sand-cargo changed to an oil tanker? Petro Bangla, a state-owned company for oil and gas exploration, has allowed carrying petroleum in the vessel, instead of BSC which is the legal authority for inspecting and giving licence to the large vessels. Does Petro Bangla have eligibility or enough skill to inspect vessels? No answer. For the discussion, let's accept the license. Then we may have more questions? The vessel loaded furnace oil from Padma Oil Company situated in Khulna. Why didn't the oil company check the vessel before loading huge amount of oil in it? No answer. 

Okay, let's carry forward. Why was the oil-tanker navigating through Shela River which is a wildlife sanctuary? Because, the regular route, Ghashiakhali Channel, was dried up due to heavy salinity and BIWTA advised all commercial vessels to use Shela River as an alternative, and it failed to dredge Ghashiakhali Channel in last 3 years, although it spent around 300 million Bangladeshi Taka for dredging. The department didn't change its advise even after an order from Prime Minister of Bangladesh (24 November 2011) and several concern letters from Ministry of Environment and Forest. Why did the Ministry ignore Prime Minister's order? No answer.

Puzzled? It is not the end of questions. Commercial vessels are not allowed to navigate through Shela River at night and have to anchor at FD Jetty. But the vessel was anchored at middle of the river without any prior notification. But FD didn't take any immediate action - seize, financial penalty or court case - against the vessel. Then how do they avoid their liability? No answer. 

Question can be raised on institutional preparation also. Three international institutions had conducted a research in 2002 on behalf of FD. The report warned Bangladesh Government about possibilities and serious consequences of oil spillage in the Sundarbans. The report recommended to (a) train concerned employees to response quickly on oil spill (b) Formulation of National Marine Pollution Contingency Plan and National Oil Spillage Response Plan (c) Coordination between FD, Coast Guard, MPA, BSC and DOE (d) Regular monitoring, collecting machineries and (e) Readiness of communities with locally available booming and clean-up materials. Bangladesh also signed SAARC Oil Spillage Response Plan in 2003. More than a decade has been passed but the preparation is at the lowest level even now. 


These questions are valid. But prior to this, immediate question is how the Sundarbans can be survived? The immediate steps should be creating a booming by using cheaper and locally available materials like bamboo, straw bale, logs etc. At least we could reduce damage by salvaging half-submerged vessel. But the authorities took 3 days to take an appropriate decision although office MPA, Coast Guard, Bangladesh Navy and FD is within 4 kms of the spot. They tried to use dispersants which was a destructive decision; and it postponed the decision after huge protest from different green groups including Sundarbans Watch Group (SWG) and Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action Network (CLEAN). 

After three days, government allowed local people to clean-up oil from rivers without any training or cautionary measures and BPC started purchasing the collected oil on a reduced rate. Only 48.2 ton of oil could be collected till date. Meanwhile the oil has been spread-out in 70 kms up and downstream of the Sundarbans region. According to the newspapers, at least 360 sq. kms of the Sundarbans is seriously affected by the oil spill and death of fishes, birds, crabs, lizards and Irrawaddy Dolphin has been reported. 

So, it is too late to response from early level of the disaster and we need a comprehensive huge activity to save Sundarbans from permanent damage. If we take lessons from other countries, it is clear that the appointed government officials or local people are not enough to clean-up floating oil from such a big area. So, it is a time to gather thousands of volunteers from all over the country in a disciplined manner under civil administration and Bangladesh Navy. To this end, we demand a state of environmental emergency in the Sundarbans. We believe that, if the government call youth groups including students, environmental activists and human rights groups -thousands of youth come out with their best efforts. 

Local soaking materials like banana tree, sacks, jute, rags and straw bale have no alternative to suck floating oil from rivers and canals. Oil eating bacteria and sorbents are used by developed countries. But Bangladesh, one of the least developed countries, may not be able to collect these materials without external support. 

We should be cautious that prop roots and Pneumatophores are oil coated now. Young environmental activists may intentions to clean-up those. That will be a well intentioned but misguided response. Walking around in the mangrove forest forces the oil deeper into the soil and makes the damage worse, not better, even if some oil is removed. All oil recovery should take place at the edge of the mangroves, in tidal canals and open waters. 
One further concern is the health safety of oil cleanup workers. Many workers are possibly to get sick from exposure to the oil, some by breathing the fumes and others by skin contact with the oil. As the workers don't have gear, masks and gloves a serious issue of health hazard likely to be raised. 

We hope, the Sundarbans is able to heal itself and regenerate the flora and fauna with its high capability of adaptation with adverse situation. But we are not sure about losing one or more species of microorganisms, planktons, invertebrates, molluscs, fishes, birds, amphibians, lizards or mammals from the Sundarbans. That will impact on ecosystem of the mangrove forest and, of course, on the people living in the adjacent areas. Maybe, we will cry for any of those species after a century when scientists will innovate potentiality of such a species.  

Will we be able to save the Sundarbans from this disaster?

* Hasan Mehedi, Member Secretary of Sundarbans Watch Group and Chief Facilitator of Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action Network (CLEAN)