Home / News / World /  Staining the Sundarbans

On 9 December, 4km from the confluence of the Sela and Passur rivers in Bangladesh, the oil tanker Southern Star-7 docked in the Mrigamari area in dense fog. It was carrying 350,000 litres of heavy, black, viscous furnace oil. At 5am, a cargo ship, plying in the same channel, rammed Southern Star-7, sinking it. The oil tanker vomited its viscous cargo into the Sela river.

The Sela river area is part of the Sundarbans: the largest unbroken stand of mangrove forests in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site. A fragile ecosystem that has adapted itself to life on the brink of brine. These mangroves form the margin between the Bay of Bengal and the rivers of the delta formed by three mighty South Asian rivers: the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

Sundarbans, or beautiful forest in the Bengali language, straddles the border between India and Bangladesh along West Bengal. India has 40% of the mangroves and Bangladesh, 60%. Both areas are classified in areas as wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests.

This mangrove margin is home to some of the world’s most endangered creatures: the masked finfoot, and the Irrawaddy, Gangetic and four other kinds of dolphins and the Bengal tiger, besides harbouring crustaceans, snakes, crocodiles and numerous creatures. The Sundarbans is also home to the endangered sundari tree (Heritiera fomes) which, some say, lends its name to the area. Forest people who call the mangroves home, fish, collect honey and live off the forest as they have done for centuries.

Heavy shipping traffic carrying toxic and hazardous cargo has no place in the Sundarbans. Yet, in Bangladesh, tankers carrying oil, pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, fly ash, cement, sand and salt cleave the channels of this fragile ecosystem every day.

A couple of weeks ago, two tankers carrying cement and sand sank in the Sundarbans.

A black stripe, 3m above the low-tide water line, hemmed the mangroves as we entered ground zero on Day 4 after the spill. The stripe continued for over 40km, snaking along the river and into the little channels (locally called khals) that branch off from the main band. Oil of varying thicknesses floated about 80km downstream from the site of the spill.

The plants and trees here are uniquely adapted to this salt-and-sweet water inter-tidal zone. They deal with submergence during high tide by sprouting aerial roots that serve as snorkels, staying above the water to breathe. We saw those snorkels (called pneumatophores) smothered in black oil.

The consequences of a spill like this will be seen in the longer term. A few animals caught in the water during the spill were coated and may die. The greater worry is about the oil that is in the water and skirting the banks.

Clean-up operations have been slow and unscientific. The oil company that owned the barrels in the Southern Star-7, Padma Oil, has concentrated on recovering the oil from the banks in a buyback scheme.

Here is where the hazard lies. Residents of Joymoni, the village most affected by the spill, are collecting the oil. They are doing all this without any protective gear. Children, women, men, all are scraping the goo by hand and collecting floating, smeared plant matter. They are then towed back to the village depot by the forest department of Bangladesh which is somewhat coordinating the effort (with a local NGO), where the plant matter is heated to loosen the oil. The oil is collected into barrels and trucked back to Padma Oil.

This oil contain chemicals that are toxic. It can have negative digestive, pulmonary, dermatological, and if exposed to over time, neurotoxic effects. No one seems to care about the fate of these villagers; it is all about recovering the oil.

In the ecosystem itself, the effects of the coated and residual oil may be seen over six months in trees. And may manifest in hormonal changes and reproductive changes in animals over time.

How exactly this particular spill will affect this ecosystem can only be determined by a scientific study, which at this point no one has signed up to do.

In the meanwhile, the ministry of transportation and the Bangladeshi government, its eye on the lost revenue from the stalled shipping lane, is pushing for resumption of traffic.

Arati Kumar-Rao is on a project River Diaries, commissioned by Yahoo! She is a Bengaluru-based photojournalist.

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