Mostafa Kamal Majumder
The need for making lasting arrangements to secure the Sunderbans forests from oil spill and other abuses by ships navigating through its rivers and canals instead of relying on contingencies to face accidents was emphasised at a follow up meeting on the 2014 oil spill in Dhaka on Tuesday.
The follow-up meeting orgnised by the Bangladesh Forest Department in association with the International Nature Conservation IUCN was told the fragile mangroves experienced the capcize of two more ships, one carrying aureate of potash chemical fertlzer and another coal since oil tanker ‘Southern Star’ went down in Shela river with 357,664 litres of furnace oil in last December. In addition the movement of engine boats, dumping of bilge, ballast and waste water from cargo ships while illegally washing and cleaning those in the rivers were containing causing havoc to the fragile mangrove ecosystem of the Sunderbans.The half-day meeting, attended by representatives of environmental organisations, representatives of relevant government departments and organisations and international agencies, was also told that the movement of transboundary movement of ships doubled during the last one year and some such ships are to blame for illegal poaching of animals including the Royal Bengal Tigers.
The latest survey revealing the presence of only about 100 tigers in the Sunderbans in place of 400 enumerated under the previous survey surprised all. In an immediate response the law enforcing agencies killed about a dozen alleged ‘poachers’ in reported ‘gunfight’ inside the forests.
The participants at the meeting cautioned that increase of ship movement inside the Sunderbans was bound to continue as a coal-based power plant was being set up by the government under joint venture with the Indian government in the vicinity of the forest while movement trasboundary cargo ships was increasing sharply between Bangladesh and India.
Pollution of and damage to forests through indiscriminate navigation, oil spill and discharge of wastes should not be left to contingencies to deal with, one speaker said. Instead regular vigil and regulation of the movement of ships and engine boats are a must to protect the reserved forests that represent a half of Bangladesh’s forest area.
The Forest Department was asked by the participants to take control of the issuance of route permits, now licenced by the Shipping Department, through the forest’s canals and rivers and also regulate land use in the forest area to check adverse impacts on the mangrove ecosystem.
Prof. Niamun Naser of Zoology Department, Dhaka University, Mohammad Arzu, CEO, Save the Seas, and Amir Hossain Chowdhury, Divisional Forest Oficer of Bangladesh Forest Department made presentations at the meeting which was moderated by the Chief Conservator of Forests Md. Yunus Ali.
The impassion given from the Forest Department side on the impact of the oil spill and the submergence of chemical fertiliser and coal laden ships that the dynamic mangrove system having two ebb an two flow of tides a day have cleared the filth was interrupted with observations like no indepth study was done on the most carbon deposits caused to the soil in the main rivers and canals by the oil spill that had been taken also to deep interiors of the forests.
The inadequacy of information and understanding of the issues were reflected also by observations made from the Forest Department side that the fears of serious damages to the forests by the oil spill have not proven true. Fact remains that the rivers and canals inside the Sunderbans for the sanctuary for irawati dolphins which is an endangered species. Plus the recently discovered rich sanctuary of big aquatic mammals like dolphins and whales in the swath of no ground in the Bay of Bengal which is not far away from the Sunderbans may also be affected by the severe pollution.
The Forest Department gave an impression it was aware of the worsening state of the mangrove environment because of the reduction of the flow of fresh water from upstream, and its impact on the top-dying of Sundry trees, the main tree species in the forest. But its sort of complacency about cleaning of wastes by ebb and flow of tides looks like override this and other worries caused by the dumping of wastes by ships capsized or not.
An Assistant Conservator of Forests told the meeting their department became the target of criticism anytime things go wrong and there are disasters. But there is a full-fledged disaster management department of the government which does not swing into action. Fact remains that the disaster management department is geared to alerting people about and responding to natural disasters not the man made disasters that Sunderbans is faced with.
Prof. Niamun Nasser cautioned against harmful impacts of industrialisation and navigation on the Sunderbans and suggested ecological auditing of the mangrove forests every five years to determine its environmental status, tuning of its environmental management plan to actual needs every five years and strict monitoring reporting of changes if any, and communication of risk information to the forest communities and the relevant authorities.
He also called for environment friendly activities inside the forests, environmental monitoring of development activities there, compulsory introduction of effluent treatment plants, establishment of baseline biological monitoring and monitoring of navigational routes for biological production. The forest department should enlist participation of fire brigade for emergency disaster management, he suggested.
A Chief Scientific Office of the Water Resources Planning orgnisation called for interministerial coordination so that their activities can be harmonised to secure protection of the Sunderbans.
The CCF made mention of shortage of skilled manpower to tackle the challenges like stopping animal poachers, protect marine mammals. Various departments operating in the coastal area do not only lack coordination but even have conflicts among themselves. The Forest Department was seeking coordination of services of the Coast Guar and the Navy, he said.
Mostafa Kamal Majumder