Concerns linger after oil spill in Bangladeshi forest

350,000 liters of oil were spilled into the Sunderbans forest in December, raising fears of potential long-term damage

Concerns linger after oil spill in Bangladeshi forest

World Bulletin/News Desk

Dead dolphins, polluted water and health problems among local villagers have all been reported since the oil spill in Bangladesh’s Sunderbans forest in early December.

The spill, which saw 350,000 liters of oil poured into the waterways of the world’s largest mangrove forest, has prompted a debate on how Bangladesh is – or isn’t - protecting its environment.

Most telling is the fact that, on Wednesday, a UN team preparing a report on the environmental impact of the spill said the government should stop traffic through the Sunderbans.

“I don’t see a scope for debate because they’re not supposed to be plying that route,” said Ainun Nishat, an environmentalist and Vice Chancellor of Dhaka’s BRAC University, emphasizing that commercial traffic through Sunderbans -- which is a UNESCO World Heritage site -- was already illegal.  

Nishat said that, despite initial official denials, the spill caused “maximum damage” but could have been quickly contained by placing buoys in the water around the spill site.

“It could’ve been scooped out with boats and pumps but they wasted five days to make a decision,” said Nishat.

Local daily newspaper Dhaka Tribune reported that a study by the Khulna University, based near the Sunderbans reserve, found that the spill had had a large impact on aquatic life in the forest.

The investigation, which covered an area of 1,200 square kilometers, found that less than half the usual number of species of plankton, which are key to the habitat’s ecological balance, were present.

Alongside the diverse wildlife that inhabits the forest - which consists of hundreds of different species including endangered Bengal tigers, migratory birds and riverine dolphins - Nishat warned that the forest itself could suffer.

“The trees have breathing roots with small openings, which breath from under water,” said Nishat, explaining that the oil could block the roots. “You may not see anything tomorrow or the day after, but the trees will slowly die.”

Anusheh Anadil, a musician and founder of a platform for Bangladeshi artists in Dhaka, said that she saw locals cleaning up the oil after the spill.

When she became aware of groups raising funds for cleanup projects, she went to assess the situation on-site. The forestry department was the only official presence, she said; volunteers and non-governmental organizations arrived weeks later.

“All the villagers cleaned up the oil after three days when the local politicians announced with big microphones that they would pay 30 Taka ($0.38) per liter. So, without any safety gear, full families jumped into the rivers,” said Anadil. “You wouldn't even know there was so much oil being handled so carelessly, because they cleaned up real well before the UN team arrived.”

“They were carrying it on anything, from tin cans (...) to barrels,” said Anadil. “They brought home the water hyacinths covered with oil and burnt them to extract oil. These are the homes with most health complaints.”

Mohd Anisul Karim is part of the group Doctors for Sundarban. He said the group was trying to provide short-term primary health care, but that there would need to be studies on the long-term effects of the spill.

He said the most common effects were caused by inhalation of toxic fumes or the ingestion of contaminated water and food, and contact with skin.

“The most frequently reported symptoms are respiratory distress, headache and eye irritation,” said Karim.

Future risks

In their statement released Wednesday, the UN focused less on the present effects of the oil spill and more on how it should serve as a “wake-up call” to protect the forest, which also extends into Indian territory. 

“The shipping of oil through a sensitive environment presents a serious risk to both the environment and the communities that depend on it for their livelihoods,” said the statement.

The comment reflected concerns among activists that the spill was not an isolated event and that more needed to be done to protect the Sunderbans ecosystem.

“Many accidents have happened prior to this, it just wasn't oil. Thing is it could have been worse, they could have been carrying pesticide,” said Anadil.

Nishat said the spill might temporarily create pressure to halt illegal traffic through the Sunderbans but that it was unlikely to last.

“It will be very hot in minds of people three months and then they’ll forget and the laws will be broken again,” said Nishat. “Then we will remember it on the first anniversary.”


Güncelleme Tarihi: 04 Ocak 2015, 11:30

Muhammed Öylek