Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Sundarbans Oil Spill Part 1

An oil covered kingfisher cleaned without expert knowledge
Photograph taken by and copyright Kurshad Alam Rinku

What can you do to help?

As birders, environmentalists or Bangladeshi’s, we must all do everything we can NOW to help limit this disaster. Some things you can do:

  • Put pressure on international media to report on this catastrophe; 
  • Publicize what is happening in the Sundarbans on social media #sundarbansoilspill; 
  • Put pressure on bird/animal conservation organisations to help; 
  • Give and help raise money - send your pledges to me
  • Put pressure on organisations/companies/governments with expertise to help; 
  • Offer your help through the International Save Sundarbans Facebook Group
  • Volunteer in the Sundarbans 
  • Sign the petition Petition to Bangladesh PM and for those in Bangladesh Petition to our PM

I am a 12 year old Bangladeshi conservationist living in the UK.  It was difficult for me outside of Bangladesh to know what was happening. I have tried to bring together the snippets of news I found into one 3-part article. These are the most difficult articles that I have written. They are not about Bangladeshi party politics but about saving a really special place on this earth. I have used photographs from Facebook and the internet and do not intend to breach any copyrights.

BBC News clip - 12/12/2014

What happened?

The last week has brought shocking news from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. An area that stretches across the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river deltas near the Bay of Bengal and that the United Nations made an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. At almost 4000 square miles, it is the world’s largest mangrove forest with many rare birds including Masked Finfoot and lots of waders, Irrawaddy and Ganges Dolphins, Olive Ridley Turtles, Freshwater Crocodiles and the Royal Bengal Tiger. My Mum and I were planning to go to the Sundarbans in February but had to cancel at the last minute, instead concentrating on survey work with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. 

WWF mangrove ecosystems

A young Birder's view

As the story has unfolded, Bangladeshi’s at home and abroad, like me, have been watching in shock and disbelief as the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit the region became apparent. The impact on wildlife is likely to be disastrous. 

In the early hours of last Tuesday, 9th December, at 5.00 am an oil tanker, Southern Star VII, carrying an estimated 77,000 gallons of furnace oil was hit by a cargo boat in the Shela River. The boat was trying to steer though thick fog, partially sinking the tanker, damaging four out of six compartments and causing a massive oil spill. The tanker was on its way to deliver oil to a power plant in Gopalganj. 

Muhammad Giasuddin, managing director of Harun & Co, the tanker’s owner, confirmed that the ship sank after being rammed by another vessel in thick fog, maintaining their vessel was not to blame for the accident. 

The Southern Star VII leaking furnice oil

The immediate aftermath

The oil quickly spread to the Passur River and networks of canals in the mangrove delta and has been spreading at least 20 km per day.

After the accident, Amir Hossain Chowdhury, Chief Forestry Officer of the Sundarbans said,

“The oil spill has spread over a 37 mile long area in the Shela and Passur Rivers. It’s a catastrophe for the delicate ecology of the Sundarbans. The oil spill has already blackened the shoreline, threatening trees, plankton, vast populations of small fishes and dolphins. The symptoms of environmental damage will be visible soon, as the water quality has already been damaged. Things have worsened a lot since then.”

The authorities have relied on a small scale clean-up which is completely inadequate being dangerous for the people involved and making the situation worse by getting oil stamped into the mud. It is clear that the Bangladesh authorities do not have the knowledge or equipment to deal with the crisis. 

Local villagers started trying to soak up the oil themselves. Seeing this, as an incentive, the authorities agreed that they could sell the oil. It was awful to watch local villagers standing in this dangerous black water, trying to collect oil with small sponges and sacks with their bare hands. They were then told that they could sell the oil for TK30 (25p) per litre back to Padma Oil, Bangladesh’s state petrol company, who had started using buoys to try to restrict the oil slick as well as asking local fishermen to use nets to try to stop the oil entering small canals. However, carcinogenic chemicals the furnace oil is highly damaging to liver and skin. Also, nothing has been done to help the fishermen who have lost their livelihood. No relief efforts have been announced for these affected people and the danger is that they start hunting rare birds and animals for food. Mr Chowdhury went on to say,

“We have not started any major clean-up efforts yet. In fact, the Forestry Department does not have the technology to deal with this kind of disaster. This catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans and we don't know how to tackle this. We're worried about its long-term impact, because it happened in a fragile and sensitive mangrove ecosystem".

The contaminated Shela River, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

The Environmental Impact

The collision happened inside one of three nature sanctuaries set up for the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin. The three areas were declared dolphin sanctuaries, where fishing is banned, in 2011, after studies found approximately 6,000 in the area. Commercial boats were banned from passing though the Sundarbans in the late 1990’s, but despite the obvious risks, in 2011 the government allowed tankers and other boats to travel through the forest. This was because the regular river route, which went around the Sundarbans, was closed due to heavy silting, which the government say they were trying to fix by dredging. Environmentalists say that the shipping route through the Sundarbans was an ecological violation. 

Rubayat Mansur, Bangladesh Head of the New York Wildlife Conservation Society, speaking from the accident site, described the oil spill as a “national disaster” and accused the authorities of not doing enough to contain the damage.

“There are no coordinated efforts to tackle the disaster. The air has become toxic and we got news from fishermen they have seen dead fishes. Crabs which make up the largest single group in the forest are facing the biggest threat. And if crabs are hit, the dolphins and tigers will be affected. Dolphins will find it very difficult to breathe this foul air. Irrawaddy Dolphins can be found in South East Asia. But their population size is very small compared to Bangladesh”.

Mr Mansur also said that it looked like most of the oil had already leaked out.

"I visited the sunken trawler this morning. Only few hundred litres of oil remain inside, so almost all the oil has spilled into the Sundarbans”. 

He went on to say that oil dispersants were "not appropriate for the mangrove ecosystem" and urged local villagers to help collect the oil from nets that have been placed in the river to contain its spread.

Dilip Kumar Dutta, Professor of Environmental Science at Khulna University explained that the oil would reduce the amount of oxygen in the water and make it difficult for aquatic species to breathe,

“The oil is spreading in the mud flats and removing it will need specialist expertise”.

Pauline Tamesis, Country Director of the United Nations Development Program in Dhaka, expressed her concern about the oil spill and called for efforts to prevent long-term environmental damage. She went on to say that the accident showed “the need for a complete ban on the movement of all commercial vessels through the Sundarbans. Global experience shows that this kind of incident has long term environmental consequences and it requires coordinated multi-sectoral efforts to restore the affected areas”.

An oil covered kingfisher cleaned without expert knowledge
Photograph taken by and copyright Kurshad Alam Rinku

An oil covered kingfisher cleaned and not long before it died
Photograph taken by and copyright Tanim Ashraf

Next: The Sundarbans Oil Spill Part 2

About the writer

Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig on Scilly
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Mya-Rose Craig is a 12 year old young birder, conservationist, writer and speaker.    She is based near Bristol and writes the successful Birdgirl Blog, with posts about birding and conservation from around the world.  She has recently been listed with the singer songwriter George Ezra and actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones as one of Bristol's most influential young people.  Please like her Birdgirl Facebook Page and follow her on Birdgirl Twitter

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