Emergency research finds devastating impacts of oil spill in the world’s largest mangrove forest
A crocodile wades into oil-tainted waters in the Sundarbans. Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao.
Last month, an estimated 350,000 liters of fuel oil spilled into the Sundarbans delta on the Bay of Bengal. An oil tanker that had collided with a cargo vessel on December 9th sank into the Shela River, spilling its oil into a protected sanctuary for the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and the Ganges river dolphins (Platanista gangetica).
The navigation route through Shela River had been unauthorized, yet about 200 boats and ships carrying cargo or oil would ply the route daily. Earlier this month, despite the catastrophe, the Bangladesh government reopened the main Shela River for cargo boats. This would go on temporarily, a government statement said, until an alternate waterway was dredged.
After the news of the oil spill spread, the local Sundarbans inhabitants were the first responders, according to Mowdud Rahman, an engineer and activist with the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports.
“People started cleaning the highly toxic oil with their bare hands. They did not waste a single moment for any protective gear to come, or any remuneration to be announced,” he told mongabay.com. “Sundarbans is their source of livelihood…so the existence of this forest means a lot to them.”
Local shows off oil collected. Clean-up largely fell to local people who had no protective equipment. Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao.
The government authorities, however, “did nothing other than watching oil consistently getting dispersed all around,” Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, a professor at Dhaka University, had told mongabay.com previously. “A privately hired small vessel salvaged the sunken ship after two days of the oil spill in the Shela River!”
Within a few days of the spill, the oil had spread to about 350 square kilometers, covering other rivers and canals.
Despite warnings by experts to act quickly, Bangladesh’s shipping minister had announced that the spill would not cause serious damage. Moreover, a team of specialists from the UN found no visible impact of the oil spill on the forest floor. Their team leader said that “the oil spill’s initial acute impacts to wildlife appeared to be limited,” Dhaka Tribune reported.
But a new preliminary study by researchers from Khulna University in Bangladesh, conducted from the December 11th (two days after the spill) to the 25th, found that the oil spill has had devastating effects.
“The river Shela and its connecting canals and creeks, and some eastern canals of the Pashur river have been contaminated by oil spill,” said the study’s lead author, Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, an environmental scientist with Khulna University. “We studied more than 1,200 square kilometers, and found that more than 500 square kilometers were highly contaminated by oil, with more than 300 milligrams of oil per liter of water.”
Oil film on the water. Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao.
In fact, the oil contamination in the 15 sampled locations ranged between 300 to 1,700 milligrams per liter of water. Anything above 10 milligrams can produce lethal conditions for aquatic life.
Chowdhury’s team found that the oil had reached forest floors, depositing on the soil of intertidal zones, leaves and stems of plants, floating fruits, roots, and pneumatophores. The contaminated waters were also marked by a sharp drop in the diversity of phytoplanktons and zooplanktons, and an increase in species that thrive in polluted waters.
This is because oil inhibits sunlight penetration into water, Chowdhury said, which affects photosynthesis and food production by the phytoplanktons.
Sundarbans is the largest single block of mangrove forests in the world, shared between India and Bangladesh. Chowdhury’s team found that the oil had covered seedlings and fruits of Sundari trees, the dominant mangrove species in the Sundarbans, affecting their regeneration. Moreover, the dark oil had coated their breathing roots, or pneumatophores.
Chowdhury had expected that the oil spill would hit the Sundarbans fish populations hard, especially since the spill had occurred during their breeding season. His surveys confirmed his fears. The contaminated locations were indeed marked by an absence of eggs and hatchlings of native and commercially important fish species, mudcrabs, and mudskippers.
Fisher shows off meagre catch of oil-stained shrimp. Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao.
During the course of the survey, Chowdhury’s team did not see any deer, wild boar, or migratory birds. Nor did they see many of the otherwise commonly found birds. But they did find a number of oil-coated animals such as otters, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and frogs. Many of them were dead.
Despite the affected area being in the dolphin sanctuary, the team found just a single dead dolphin. Others may have moved to other creeks and rivers, Chowdhury said.
According to Rahman, coordinated efforts to clean up the spill are still lacking.
“Except some assurances, pledges, and formation of an investigation committee, we have not seen any effective actions from the government,” he said. “Instead, the government reopened the river route through Sundarbans through which 400 vessels crossed the Shela River on the very first day of the opening. This oil spill incident should have been a wake-up call for all of us. But we see the same carelessness as we have been seen before.”
The oil spill was a disaster waiting to happen, Rahman added. Despite protests and warnings, the government is establishing a 1320 megawatt (MW) coal-powered plant at Rampal, just 13 kilometers away from Sundarbans, he said.
“Experts have warned, people are protesting…However, concerned authorities and the India-Bangladesh governments are not paying any attention. Instead, the government has given permits to another company named Orion to establish a 565 MW [coal] power plant very close to Sundarbans…If such activities are not stopped, Sundarbans will lose its glory.”
The Sundarbans has heavy tanker traffic, which is only expected to rise as the government builds two coal-fired plants at the edge of the great forest. Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao.
Children ‘clean’ oil spill with kitchen utensils in the Sundarbans
(12/15/2014) On December 9th, a tanker slammed into another vessel along the Shela River in the world’s largest mangrove forest: the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. The tanker sank, spilling an estimated 75,000 gallons (350,000 liters) of fuel oil into waterways that are a part of a reserve for threatened Ganges river dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins.
Artists, musicians, writers protest government plans for massive coal plant in the Sundarbans
(10/28/2014) Over the weekend, Bangladeshi artists performed plays, sang songs, and recited poetry all in a bid to protect the Sundarbans—the world’s biggest mangrove forest—from the threat of a massive coal plant. Construction is already under way on the hugely controversial Rampal coal plant, a 1,320 megawatt plant set just 14 kilometers from the edge of the Sundarbans.
Featured video: new documentary highlights the Long March to save the Sundarbans
(08/05/2014) Last fall tens of thousands of Bangladeshis participated in a five day march that took them from the country’s capital to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. They marched to protest the proposal to build a coal plant on the edge of the great wetland. Filmmaker, Bratto Amin, was there.
Bioluminescent bacteria expose toxic arsenic in Bangladesh
(04/02/2014) A knob turns, and pure water streams from the faucet. In developed nations, this expectation borders on being a fundamental human right. Elsewhere in the world, tap water is a pipe dream, while finding potable groundwater can be a full-time occupation laced by lethal threats—such as arsenic contamination.
World’s most vulnerable nation to climate change turns to coal power
(11/18/2013) In October, a global risks analysis company, Maplecroft, named Bangladesh the world’s most vulnerable nation to climate change by 2050. The designation came as little surprise, since Bangladesh’s government and experts have been warning for years of climatic impacts, including rising sea levels, extreme weather, and millions of refugees. However, despite these very public warnings, in recent years the same government has made a sudden turn toward coal power—the most carbon intensive fuel source—with a master plan of installing 15,000 megawatts (MW) of coal energy by 2030, which could potentially increase the country’s current carbon dioxide emissions by 160 percent.
Richest countries spent $74 billion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2011, eclipsing climate finance by seven times
(11/13/2013) In 2011, the top 11 richest carbon emitters spent an estimated $74 billion on fossil fuel subsidies, or seven times the amount spent on fast-track climate financing to developing nations, according to a recent report by the Overseas Development Institute. Worldwide, nations spent over half a trillion dollars on fossil fuel subsidies in 2011 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Bangladesh plans massive coal plant in world’s biggest mangrove forest
(11/11/2013) On October 22nd Bangladeshi and Indian officials were supposed to hold a ceremony laying the foundation stone for the Rampal power plant, a massive new coal-fired plant that will sit on the edge of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. However, the governments suddenly cancelled the ceremony, instead announcing that the project had already been inaugurated in early October by the countries’ heads of state via a less-ornate Skype call. While the governments say the change was made because of busy schedules, activists contend the sudden scuttling of the ceremony was more likely due to rising pressure against the coal plant, including a five-day march in September that attracted thousands.