As rivers re-open to shipping, oil threat to Bangladesh's Sundarbans forest continues

A dead Irrawaddy dolphin floats on the Harintana-Tembulbunia channel of the Sela River on 6th January 2015. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain for the Dhaka Tribune.
A dead Irrawaddy dolphin floats on the Harintana-Tembulbunia channel of the Sela River on 6th January 2015. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain for the Dhaka Tribune.
Bangladesh's Sundarbans forest, home of incredibly rich biodiversity, is under unprecedented threat, writes ASMG Kibria. The recent oil tanker capsize on the Shela river puts the forest at risk of widespread biodiversity loss, but just this week, the authorities re-opened the Shela river to shipping with no restrictions on hazardous cargoes.
The accident was entirely foreseeable - oil tankers have been moving through these channel for years. The authorities have so far failed to explain the lack of precautions and preparedness.

The Sundarbans of Bangladesh is the largest mangrove forest in the world and vital for supporting hundreds of species many of which are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List - such as Royal Bengal Tigers, Ganges and Irrawaddi Dolphins, estuarine crocodiles and endemic river terrapins.

This forest is a place of wild, menacing beauty where jewel-like kingfishers perch on sleeping estuarine crocodile or fly over the fin of passing shark; at low tide, otters, monkeys, wild boars, and spotted deer emerge from the forest.  The prolific bird population keeps the forest busy.

And the mud banks regularly bear the deep pugmarks of a striding Bengal Tiger. The majestic tiger's population in the Sunbdarbans forest is the largest remaining in the world.

For its remarkable biodiversity and uniqueness UNESCO has declared this ecosystem as a World Heritage Area. But its protection is entirely inadequate to the riches it contains.

Oil tanker capsize

On 9th December 2014, the oil tanker Southern Star VII was wrecked on the Shela river after being rammed by a cargo vessel in Chandpai dolphin sanctuary, created to protect critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.

The tanker, which was carrying more than 350 tonnes of furnace oil, sank. More than two thirds of the oil since spilled into the river before the tanker could being salvaged. Environmental watchdogs have fear that the oil slick has already spread over an 80 kilometre wide swathe from the site of the accident.

Oil has entered into the Sundarban forest through twenty or more canals connected to Shela river, which further complicated the situation. Another major river, the Pashur, has also been affected by this pollution.

This, the greatest ecological accident in country's history, has heightened the grave concerns about the environmental impacts of river transportation through the Sundarbans.

A devastated ecosystem

"We have spotted dolphins coming out of the water more frequently for air and going down again in some places", said Tapan Kumar Dey, Conservator of Forests. "Crocodiles' movement in the affected areas has been less after the disaster and we are trying to determine actually what happened to them."

This would disrupt the entire aquatic system as this is happened in the time of fish breeding season. On 13th December the Dhaka Tribune reported first instance of Irrawaddy dolphin death about 25 kilometres away from the capsized tanker (see photo, above right).

Monirul H Khan, professor of zoology at Jahangirnagar University, told the Dhaka Tribune: "Generally, dolphin corpses do not come to the water surface. The fact that one of them has floated to the surface should mean a number of dolphins have been directly affected. If large creatures such as dolphins could not survive, then smaller ones like otters and fish are in much bigger danger."

The accident was entirely foreseeable - oil tankers have been moving through these channel for years. The authorities have so far failed to explain the lack of precautions and preparedness.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which had inscribed the Sundarbans on its World Heritage List in 1997, expressed concerned that "there is likely damage to the Outstanding Universal Value of the property, which must be evaluated."

Phytoplankton and zooplankton, the food producers of the aquatic ecosystem, have dramatically went down by 40% to 80% percent, according to a recent study.

A 15-member team lead by Dr. Rouf from Fisheries and Marine Resources Technology found that within seven days after the oil accident, the river water contained 600 phytoplankton and 100 zooplankton per litre of the river water. In normal winter condition it contains 1,000-2,000 phytoplankton and 500-600 zooplankton per litre.

This would bring profound negative consequences to the entire ecosystem. Already the fish availability in the river has dropped sharply. "Now it is the fishing season as the spring tide has started in the river. But the catch of the fishermen are very low", said Amir Hossain Chowdhury, divisional forest officer of Sundarbans east zone.

Forest department reported two otters were found dead and floating in the Shela river and Chototengra canal yesterday. After autopsy, furnace oil was found in the mouth cavities of the animals, they confirmed.

Professor Abdullah Harun Chodhury from Khulna University has found that the dissolved oil content in the Shela river water is well above the threshold level for the crabs, otters, prawn, deers, fish eggs and other microbes.

Vultures, eagles and other bird species who feed on dead animals are came back at the southern part of the Sundarban forest there the accident occurred, said Abdullah Harun, Professor of Zoology department at Jahangirnagar University.

"Only if they smell large numbers of dead animals do the vultures visit the place. At the end of December they were not supposed to be - here indicating there are many dead animals which have remained unnoticed."

Meanwhile, livelihood of millions of people around the area will severely affected which would increase forest destruction. It is high time to take smart and comprehensive measures for saving the forest.

Government's inability to foresee or forestall

Bangladesh has never faced this kind of catastrophe of such scale - a fact frequently cited by regulators to clear themselves of responsibility. But the accident was entirely foreseeable - oil tankers have been moving through these channel for years. The authorities have so far failed to explain the lack of precautions and preparedness.

Fortunately the forest department and the Padma Oil Company Ltd, owner of the spilled oil, started a cleaning up mission by employing local people. The company initiated a 'buy back' program paying 30 taka (less than 40 cents) per litter of sludge retrieved. They were also been committed free medical treatment if necessary.

People have successfully scooped up large amount of oil by using sponges, sacks and pots despite potential health risks; however, this should not become an excuse for failing to progress essential technological precautions.

"The extent of losses due to the oil spill is not as large as it was feared in the beginning", claims Anwar Hossain Manju, the Forests and Environment Minister.

But this is wishful thinking - the intention of the government is more to salvage their dwindling reputation, than to save the ecosystem. Forest department officials warned that although the adverse effects of this disaster are buckled down, oil stained plants along the canals would not survive.

Amir Hossain, chief forest official of the Sundarbans said: "This catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans and we're worried about its long-term impact."

Against UN advice, Shela river re-opened to shipping

In response to request from Bangladesh government The United Nations (UN) promptly responded to this crisis and has dispatched a team of international experts to Bangladesh to help clean up remaining fuel oil in Sundarbans of Bangladesh.

The development came as experts slammed authorities for failing to organise a proper clean-up effort of the oil spill since government was reluctant in accepting international support.

The UN experts expressed concern over the disaster, urging Dhaka to impose a "complete" and "permanent" ban on the movement of commercial vessels through the 10,000 sq km (3,850 sq m) forest. The same request has been issued by the Ministry of Forests and Environment.

But the Shipping Ministry has rejected this recommendation. temporary ban on shipping put in place after the accident was in fact lifted two days ago on 7th January, pending the dredging of an alternative route, the Mongla-Ghoshiakhali channel.

Minister Shahjahan Khan said, "Human need is our first concern not the forest." The statement is not unusual for a powerful politician with education little above benchmark for literacy definition and thereby, lack of knowledge to decide a sound tradeoffs.

Hence - in the absence of national and international pressure - the Shipping Ministry is not going to review the permission of moving even vessels bearing hazardous cargoes through the delicate Sundarban ecosystem.

A global treasure that must be sustained

Sundarbans is an incredible resource for the world although it is in Bangladesh and a small portion extends to India. But the politicians of Bangladesh will not act to rationally to preserve it unless there is enormous international pressure. World leaders and scientists should come forward to save the Sundarbans before it is too late.

The biodiversity of Sundarban contains 334 plant species belonging to 245 genera and 75 families, 165 algae and 13 orchid species. It is also rich in fauna with 693 species of wildlife which includes 49 mammals, 59 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 210 white fishes, 24 shrimps, 14 crabs and 43 mollusks species.

The varied and colourful bird-life found along the waterways of the property is one of its greatest attractions, including 315 species of waterfowl, raptors and forest birds including nine species of kingfisher and the magnificent white-bellied sea eagle.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a New York-based organization discovered a surprising population of 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins in the Bangladesh Sundarbans in 2011. This finding results an important effort to conserving the marvellous dolphins by declaring Dhangmari, Chandpai and Dudhmukhi areas of eastern Sundarbans as dolphin sanctuaries.

Conservationists say these are among the most endangered dolphin species in the world and the mangrove forest is the only place where Irrawaddy and Long-nosed Gangetic river dolphins are found.

Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government has persistently neglected the conservation of the forest. A great concern has been expressed about the future of this delicate ecosystem in recent study, 'Securing a resilient future for Bangladesh Sundarbans'.

Since 1764 the forest has lost two third of its original size and currently it has shrunk to 140,000 hectares.



ASMG Kibria is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University researching ecosystem services for human wellbeing and biodiversity conservation.

His published articles include: