On 9 December, a cargo vessel collided with an oil tanker spewing 3,50,000 litres of furnace oil in the Sundarbans, a World Heritage site of unparalleled beauty and biodiversity. Initial reactions of the government in Bangladesh were of denial. The Dhaka Tribune quotes the country’s shipping minister Shajahan Khan as saying, “The chemical impact of furnace oil is minimal. It would have been worse during rains because the oil would have spread further. But now there won’t be any major damage."

By denying that the oil would create a problem, the establishment lost crucial time in containing the problem that is now well on its way to becoming an environmental tragedy.

The Sundarbans is a complex ecosystem comprising one of the largest contiguous tidal mangrove forests in the world, home to endangered species such as the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Irrawaddy and the Gangetic dolphin, hundreds of birds and aquatic fauna. It is situated mostly in Bangladesh with a small portion in India. The Indian part of the ecosystem is estimated to be about 19% of the whole. The disaster happened on the boundary of Bangladesh inside a recently declared Dolphin sanctuary. Ten days after the disaster, it is now estimated that the oil might have spread over 50km on the waters of the Sela river where the tanker first sank. Reports and photographs are now pouring in of the real extent of the damage as the oil chokes trees and birds.

Arati Rao, an environment photographer and blogger who was one of the first to reach the spot, has uploaded heart rending pictures on her twitter page (http://mintne.ws/1zz41MU)—mudflats caked in oil, a helpless crocodile covered in furnace oil. She reports on how villagers have been employed for 400 taka a day to collect the oil manually with buckets, pots and fishing nets.

The trouble with oil contamination in an ecologically rich area is that no chemicals can be used to disperse the oil. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a global conservation organization based in New York, has suggested refraining from using chemical dispersants in the Sundarbans. “Chemical dispersants shouldn’t be used without consulting international experts with oil spill experience in mangrove forests. Dispersants are typically used in oceanic waters to prevent the slick from reaching the shore." Terming the forest department’s programme for placing fine-mesh mosquito nets at the entrance of small creeks a “wise step", the WCS report says “Oil must be manually removed from behind these nets at low tide aiming to prevent it from sloshing back and forth in the trapped channel."

Environmentalists have predicted many long-term consequences for the ecosystem that may not be immediately obvious—the oil will act like slow poison, reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen available to the dolphins, it will affect the germination of trees like the Sundari (after which the Sundarbans is named), affecting species such as the monitor lizard, crocodile, otter, and many kinds of fish.

A Facebook group (http://mintne.ws/1z7oElQ) is mobilizing volunteers and arming them with material to help manually clean up the oil spill. The relief work could get a shot in the arm if the Bangladesh authorities called in experts from other countries that have the experience of containing oil spills in biodiversity rich areas, where chemicals cannot be used.

The incident raises larger questions of why commercial vehicles carrying oil are allowed to ply inside the sanctuary or why there was no disaster management plan in place to deal with such a crisis. Ironically, fishing is not allowed inside the sanctuary, but oil tankers are.

For India too, there are lessons to be learned. The country’s shipping ministry announced ambitious plans in August to dredge the Ganga and open up a shipping route from Varanasi to Hooghly. The plan is to build 11 terminals that will eventually allow transport of coal, fertilizers and food on the waterways of the Ganga. This will involve dredging a corridor that will pass through a dolphin sanctuary in Bihar (one of the few stretches where the Ganga is still pristine) and affect the overall river ecology which is already under pressure from pollution. Yes, India can feel smug right now that the disaster hasn’t reached its shores, but the Bangladesh oil spill has set a precedent, that when it comes to allowing commercial vehicles through our most pristine wildlife areas, the precautionary principle is a must.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars.

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