Massive Oil Spill Threatens Bangladesh's Sundarbans

Spotted deers forage at the Kokilmoni forest in the Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site. Bagerhat, Bangladesh. Image by Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman. Copyright Demotix (5/11/2014)

Spotted deers forage at the Kokilmoni forest in the Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site. Bagerhat, Bangladesh. Image by Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman. Copyright Demotix (5/11/2014)

An oil tanker carrying 358,000 liters (almost 100,000 gallons) of furnace oil sank in the Shela river on December 7, spilling oil over more than 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) of the Sundarbans. Located on in southwest Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is the largest single block of tidal mangrove forest in the world, covering approximately 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 square miles), of which 60 percent is in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also one of the largest reserves for the Bengal tiger, and provides sanctuary to many other species.

According to reports, the new oil spill threatens the Mrigmari-Nondabala-Andharmanik dolphin sanctuary. Mangrove trees are also highly susceptible to oil pollution—indeed, they are expected to start dying after the area's aquatic life, which is typically first to perish. Fahim Hassan has put together an infographic on Flickr explaining the details of the devastation.

According to images Mowgliz Elisabeth Rubaiyat posted on Facebook, the disaster is already killing some animals. Local authorities appear to be outside their depth, never before having confronted so large an oil spill, and lacking the necessary infrastructure to respond properly. Al Jazeera reports several local fishermen have resorted to cleaning up the spill using sponges and sacks.

Many on Twitter have questioned the authorities’ response:

To help in the relief effort, the government dispatched a ship to the area carrying oil dispersants. If such chemicals are released incorrectly, however, it can harm the local ecology still further. Four days later, the state's efforts seem to have had little effect, exacerbating fears of a lasting ecological disaster.

Bangladesh's Water Transport Minister says locals were able to stop the oil from entering the forrest, using nets, and they're also working to remove the oil from the water, to keep the situation from becoming worse. The national Forest Department is leading the operation with 100 boats and 200 fishermen.

The Forest Department has filed a lawsuit for 1 billion Bangladeshi taka (about $13 million) against the owners of the two cargo ships responsible for the spill.

Just a month ago, before the spill, the Sunderbans mangrove forest looked like this:

Blogger Ahmed Sharif criticizes the government's ill-planned disaster-management strategy, saying it misunderstands the issue:

দুর্যোগ ব্যবস্থাপনা বলতে কি শুধু বন্যা-জলোচ্ছ্বাস বোঝায়? গত দুই দশকে অর্থনৈতিক দিক থেকে দ্রুত অগ্রগতির সাথে সাথে যেসব ঝুঁকির সৃষ্টি হয়েছে, সেগুলির জন্যে আমরা নিজেদের তৈরি করতে পারিনি। নদীতে জাহাজের সংখ্যা আগের চেয়ে বহুগুণ বেড়ে গেছে, কিন্তু তার সাথে পাল্লা দিয়ে তৈরি হয়নি মনিটরিং এজেন্সিগুলি। জাহাজ তৈরি হচ্ছে যথেচ্ছভাবে, যাত্রী নেওয়া হচ্ছে অতিরিক্ত, ফিটনেসবিহীন জাহাজ চলছে, নদীর পানি দূষণ করছে জাহাজের বর্জ্য, নদীর মাঝে পার্ক করে রাখা হচ্ছে জাহাজ, সঠিক যন্ত্রপাতি ছাড়াই চলছে জাহাজ, চলাচলের সময় ঠিক করে দেয়ার পরেও কেউ মানছেনা – কেউ দেখার নেই। কাজেই দুর্ঘটনার সম্ভাবনা প্রতিদিন বেড়েই চলেছে। আর দুর্ঘটনার সম্ভাবনা বাড়লেও সেটার জন্যে প্রস্তুতি নেই আমাদের।

Is disaster-management confined to floods and cyclones? In past decades, the country has seen accelerated economic development and increased risks. But we could not keep pace to prepare ourselves for those added risks. The commercial ships in our waterways have multiplied, but our monitoring agencies couldn't keep up. Many ships are being built outside the proper guidelines, carrying passengers over their capacity. Many ships are unfit to operate, they dispose of waste improperly, they block waterways indiscriminately, they break schedules—nobody is monitors any of this. So there is an increased risk of accidents, and we are not prepared for these accidents and disasters.

YouTube user A. K. M. Wahiduzzaman uploaded a video capturing the devastation of the oil spill:

The body of the first dolphin, a rare Irrawadi dolphin, to die in this incident was discovered last Friday. According to reports, the Padma Oil Company has managed to remove about 10,000 liters (about 2,600 gallons) of oil in its cleanup efforts, so far. The company is offering to pay volunteer cleanup-workers 30 Bangladeshi taka (about 40 cents) for every liter (about 34 ounces) of oil recovered.

Singer and blogger Mac Haque comments on Facebook:

What is perplexing is the rudimentary cleaning operation. With offer of Taka 30/= per litre for furnace oil recovered, thousands have jumped in, not to save the Sundarbans but to eke an existence. Obviously for the poorest of the poor this is a windfall. However, have not heard anyone talk about the risk to human health from dangerous toxins in the furnace oil. Anywhere else in the world the Government would have faced public litigation suit for endangering citizens health. I see thousands of poor and ignorant people dying in the days ahead thanks to Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation's myopic decision. Our focus should not only be for hunt of dead dolphins – but contaminated humans!

There have been protests demanding that the authorities ban merchant ships and cargo vessels from using the rivers and channels of the Sundarbans. Absent effective government measures, Bangladesh will have to keep relying on civil society and volunteers in this environmental crisis.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.