Friday 19 December 2014

The Sundarbans Oil Spill Part 3

Oil spill, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

Yesterday I heard the fantastic news that the UN have sent 15 international experts to Bangladesh, some are experts in cleaning oil spills from different habitats and the rest are experts in cleaning oil covered wildlife. This is a brilliant start, but we need international pressure to make sure that this leads to teams of people supervising the clean up project. 

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;
  • Put pressure on bird/animal conservation organisations to help;
  • Give and help raise money;
  • Put pressure on organisations/companies/governments with expertise to help;
  • Offer your help through the International Save Sundarbans Facebook Group.

A young conservationist's view

It was difficult for me outside of Bangladesh to know what was happening. I have tried to bring together the snippets of news into one 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. 

Oil spill, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

An Urgent Appeal

Child cleaning oil spill, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

The local villagers now have to go a long way downstream to continue collecting oil, as it has dispersed. They can not travel these distances in their non motorized boats unless they are towed by motorized ones. The Forestry Department and a local NGO, Shushilon, have provided two motorized boats (trawlers) to tow the villagers’ boats back and forth. Those helping there urgently need money to pay for motorized boat hire, so that more people can join the cleanup operation. With the price per litre for the oil collected and sold back to the state petroleum company being increased from 30 to 40 taka, people are eager to make some money while serving the cause. A small scale pilot project is being trialed for the distribution of gloves and safety gear, which does seem essential for those involved.

Child cleaning oil spill, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

We are also hearing good things about dedicated forestry officers. They do not know how far the oil has travelled beyond a place called Haringhata. So need to conduct an urgent survey, for which they need more people to come and help bringing with them money to pay for their own food, tents and boats. Apparently there are local NGO’s waiting for funds to come through.

Money and help is needed urgently.

The Impact

During any oil spill, the first victims are the zooplankton and phytoplankton that die in billions; followed by surface dwelling creatures including fishes, birds swimming in oily water get feathers covered in oil, stopping them flying; when oil settles on the deeper water along the coast line, all filter feeders get affected; soon fish and other aquatic animals start dying and the area gets filled with a bad odour. If the area is not properly cleaned quickly, then it will take years for nature to regenerate the Sundarbans mangrove forest. 

A study titled “Oil-spill Impact on Mangrove Forest Sundarbans” conducted by the Asian Development Bank and the Bangladesh Government in 2002 said the regeneration of mangrove forest plants is very sensitive to contamination by oil. This is partly because oil films on the breathing roots inhibit the supply of oxygen to the underground root systems.

Oil on mangrove, oil spill, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

The authorities have two options to remove oil from water, firstly by using chemical dispersants which were likely to cause more damaged to the eco-system or secondly, oil-consuming bacteria which has to be imported. This seems to be the reason why no effective measures have so far been taken to remove the oil.

Interview with a Sundarbans Specialist

Sundarbans specialist Dr Abdullah Harun, Department of Environment, University of Khulna set out the steps that should be taken to remove the oil in the Sundarbans as follows:

  • The furnice oil that has collected on the canals has to be removed. But to achieve this we should not depend on the spontaneity of the people, rather employ the various governmental agencies and members of the armed forces in an organized way. And to extract the oil, sponges and other oil absorbent material and instruments should be used in addition to using hands.
  • Before deciding to use chemical sprays to remove the floating layer of oil, we need to consider many things. One cannot afford to lose time reaching this decision, while the work of extracting oil using sponges and other absorbent material and vacuum machinery by the governmental agencies and members of the armed forces must begin as soon as possible.
  • Steps must be taken to extract the oil from the layer of mud that is regularly flooded by the tides, if necessary 4-5 cm of soil must be extracted to achieve this.
  • The oil that has collected at the base of the trees must be removed. 
  • If bare hands alone are used, the scale of danger that is facing the Sundarbans will not become apparent right away, as we have seen from incidents of oil spills in mangrove forests in other countries in the past, it takes several weeks or even years for the effects of the pollution to become fully manifest. It may take a mangrove forest several decades or even half a century before it recovers. The future of the Sundarbans in the near future depends on the number of trees and animals that have fallen victims to the oil pollution, and also on how much of it has been affected fully or partially.
  • Lastly, what remedial steps are being taken? The only way to keep the Sundarbans oil free in the future is to make sure that the passage of ships through the forest is banned and to stop development projects such as the two coal based power plants, NTPC and Orion Coal Power Plants, planned close the Sundarbans, This can only be achieved by building strong public pressure on the government.

The Present Position

The Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan said that the government is not considering a permanent ban to on vessels travelling through the Shela River in the Sundarbans. In reply to query from reporters regarding the government’s priority, he said: “Sundarbans is important to us, but the need of the people comes first.” This does not take into account the environmental impact of this disaster; If you kill the land you kill the people. 

Monirul H Khan, Professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka said 

“Generally, dolphin corpses do not come to the water surface. If large creatures such as dolphins can not survive, then smaller ones like otters and fish are in much bigger danger. A large number of dolphins may have migrated from the area by now. They probably suffered breathing problems because the contamination would have significantly lowered the level of dissolved oxygen in the water,” going on to explain

“The recent oil-spill in the Sundarbans is the biggest disaster this fragile forest has ever faced. The immediate impact is on aquatic organisms including dolphins, fish, shrimp, crabs, and many microscopic organisms, together with semi-aquatic organisms like crocodiles, otters, lizards, Masked Finfoot, etc. Ultimately the pollution will affect all flora and fauna including the tiger and the deer, because the pollution will reach them through drinking water and the food chain. Not finding many carcass of wildlife does not mean nothing is affected. Manual cleaning of oil by deploying villagers is effective at small scale, but this must be conducted under rigorous monitoring and supervision of the Government Departments so that there is no opportunistic poaching and illegal logging, which are possible when a large number of people get access to the reserved forest. Because of the smell of the oil the wild animals will haphazardly move in search of unpolluted areas and will be vulnerable to poaching.” 

A week into the incident, a Bangladesh inter-ministerial meeting suggested maintaining the recently imposed transportation ban the Shela River route. After the meeting, Abdullah Al Islam Jacob, junior minister for environment and forest, told reporters that the government asked the shipping ministry to ban the use of the Shela River route. An inter-ministerial committee will be formed for the supervision of the overall progress of the clean-up of the Sundarbans, which is at least a start.

Oil spill, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

Next: The Sundarbans Oil Spill Part 4

About the writer

Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig
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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