Sundarbans oil spill: who will clean the mess?

Though UN team members who visited the World Heritage Site reported limited immediate impact, experts say extent of damage will emerge five years on

By Kazimuddin Ahmed
Published: Saturday 10 January 2015

Debris laden with the spilled furnace oil, collected by villagers and volunteers, remain on the banks of the Sela river

A few days ago, Tanjilur Rahman, a Dhaka-based wildlife film-maker, who is helping villagers in Sundarbans in Bangladesh in cleaning up the mess of the recent oil spill, posted a series of photographs on Facebook. They were of vibrant green shoots and tender leaves of mangroves breaking through layers of scabby black oil, embracing the sunlight.

The images were symbolic of resilience and hope amidst the gloom that prevailed at the spillage of 350,000 litres of furnace oil in the heart of the World Heritage Site on December 9, 2014. The spill has been termed as an “unprecedented disaster”. The vessel carrying furnace oil to a thermal power plant met with an accident, spilling its entire cargo in the Sela river in a protected area within Sundarbans. In an ecology that is as sensitive as it is vibrant and fascinating, this could have dire consequences. It poses grave danger to the flora and fauna—big and small, on land and in water—and also people living in the area.

Mangrove shoots emerge from an oil-laden mire

A month has passed since the incident and it has lost its newsprint space—not that it made big news a month earlier. Reports of the spill started emerging in the international media about two days after the accident. It remained a soft news for about a week and then slowly faded away. Now, some Bangladeshi media and Facebook walls of the concerned seem to be the only source of information and updates about the impacts of the spill and cleaning-up efforts.

In the face of the attention, or lack thereof, on the spill and its implications, the images symbolise hope and resilience, two qualities that the villagers and environmentalists alike would need—the former in relation to their lives and livelihoods, and the latter on restoration of the ecology in the area.

Unfriendly neighbour

India, Bangladesh’s neighbour, maintained a resounding silence over the issue except for some news reports in the media about how “alert” India was in case the spill crossed the borders. There was pitiably little on science or policy related to the spill, about India’s capacity to deal with such an event, or how India could help as a neighbour.

One would think of this as rather unbecoming, given the fact that 40 per cent of this largest mangrove forest in the world falls within India. And that the prime minister of India pledged a “neighbours first” policy at the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit that took place barely a fortnight before the spill. Is it because of some kind of diplomatic constraint or something else? Or does India just not care?

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, government ministers have been denying any impact of the spill. The Sela river has been opened for navigation again from January 6, 2015 and debris laden with the spilled furnace oil collected by the villagers and volunteers remain on the banks of the river. It is estimated that 60,000-70,000 litres of the oil was collected by the villagers and were sold at collection points. Rahman said they have gathered about 20 tonnes of oil-laden rubbish from the area. However, they are yet to find a proper way of disposing it of and have so far stored it in temporary skips. He admits it is tough for them to do it alone and help for volunteers like him, it seems, is scarce.

Greenwash by authorities

Environmental activists say the government will in all probability gloss over the issue as UN teams may inspect Sundarbans. Incidentally, UN team members who visited Bangladesh have reported that they found “limited immediate impact” in the area. The team also recommended that shipping through Sundarbans should be banned. Ainun Nishat, Bangladesh’s leading hydrologist and an authority on Sundarbans, however, says that it would be difficult to see the impacts immediately and that it would take at least five years before the extent of damage would emerge.

It is noteworthy that there were reports about UNESCO’s concern regarding the Rampal power plant, shipping routes through Sundarbans and other industrial development around the protected area in 2014. It had advised Bangladesh to discontinue the shipping routes through Sundarbans and had even indicated that failure in safeguarding the area could lead to re-categorising it under the Endangered World Heritage list. Bangladesh’s minister of environment and forests had at that time denied any such communiqué from UNESCO.

As a month passes by and the term “wake-up call” resonates everywhere, have both stewards of Sundarbans lost the plot to safeguard this unique natural treasure?

Ill equipped

Anurag Danda, head of Worldwide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Sundarbans Programme, says there are no political or diplomatic reasons behind India’s silence. “Not in the current environment, at least, since India, and West Bengal in particular, are showing keenness in sealing the land boundary agreement that will involve swapping of enclaves,” he says. Danda thinks the silence is on account of lack of knowledge and expertise required to deal with oil spill in an estuary as opposed to open waters, more so in the case of Sundarbans, given its peculiarities. “I do not think India can do any better in such a situation. It is just that India does not permit river traffic within protected areas. I do not think inaction or even suggestion of collective action is due to political or diplomatic constraints,” he adds.

Vivek Menon, founder and executive director of Delhi-based Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), too, mentions lack of knowledge. “(I) can’t answer for Bangladesh, but India really needs to be much more proactive. The issue is not whether the disaster management unit is well-equipped and has a good command structure. After the tsunami in India, some preparedness may be in place; whether they are good for oil spills is another matter altogether. But the ecological knowledge of this unit is the key. There really exists no specialised unit to handle oil spills vis-à-vis ecological ramifications in India,” says Menon.

While some consider the spill a wake-up call, others are sceptical about the influence of this event in creating new measures and frameworks for the protection of Sundarbans from human-made disasters. According to Nishat, talks about oil spills in the region have been going on for decades and studies had warned of incidents such as this. “Such a spill had been anticipated. However officials in Bangladesh were not trained properly (to deal with such a mishap),” he says.

He explains that maritime countries in South Asia do not have infrastructure in place even for regular maritime maintenance. “When ships change their engine oil, by law, they have to do it in designated places where the waste can be properly disposed of. To my knowledge, no South Asian state has this mechanism in place,” he adds.

A case for Bangladesh-India joint action

However, could bilateral and collective action of both Bangladesh and India, the stewards of Sundarbans, have saved the day and led to better management of the spill and its aftermath? Nishat thinks cleaning furnace oil is no rocket science. “It is a thick oil and can be easily contained by the boom method. What it requires is manpower and Bangladeshi government should have a mechanism in place where it could generate the necessary resources and workforce for such an intervention. In a country of 160 million, it should not be difficult to mobilise 500 people,” he says. He, however, has a word of caution. “There could be another oil spill in the coastal belt of Bangladesh or India, tomorrow or day after tomorrow. The question is, are we doing anything about that?”

Shahab Enam Khan, chair of the Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, says there has to be collective action between Bangladesh and India to put in place better safeguards for Sundarbans from a larger management perspective. “But the problem is that of disjointed policy. If we talk about the single landscape narrative of Sundarbans, there is a crucial missing component, which is the lack of synchronisation in political and administrative arrangements between the two countries in terms of policy and action. Both countries work with their own sets of polices, management frameworks and approaches,” he says.

The convergence of action of governments of the two countries on Sundarbans is, however, not unprecedented. On the contrary, it has been very much part of quite a few joint actions. Prime ministers of both countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2011 for joint management of the area, including ecosystem management and livelihood. In 2010, environment ministers of both countries discussed issues of cooperation on the delta and in 2004 there was even a joint tiger census.

Khan also points out the not so Sundarbans- friendly institutional arrangements for cooperation between the two countries. One example is the 1,320 MW Rampal coal-based power plant in Bangladesh’s Khulna division proposed by the Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC), a joint venture of both countries. It has come under criticism for being too close to Sundarbans. “The EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] for the power plant was not properly done. Another example is the agreement between both countries for inland waterways transit. The easiest route for transit is through Sundarbans. Both these agreements give a sheer sense of violation of basic norms (as far as the safeguard of Sundarbans is concerned),” he adds.

Government officials, who on many previous occasions were quite vocal about cooperation between the countries regarding Sundarbans, were cautious while answering queries for this article. P R Sinha, country director of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in India, says the government machinery is well prepared.

“Since this spill happened, I have been in touch with the authorities in India. The entire machinery of the government of West Bengal is on alert, including expert organisations like Oil India and ONGC who have got all the expertise in containing and neutralising oil spill,” he says. IUCN has recently concluded a project on transboundary ecosystems of the two countries with Sundarbans as a major component.

Role of civil society and public domain

In the event of such disasters, if there is absence of  government cooperation, civil society can play an important role, says Menon. Non-government organisations in India, such as IUCN, WTI and WWF have promoted collaboration between the two countries on environmental matters and jointly worked with Bangladesh on various environmental programmes, including ones for Sundarbans. “WTI and its international partner, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), have asked Bangladesh whether they need technical assistance. We are yet to hear from them but if they so wish we would assist. IFAW, in particular, has skilled emergency relief teams that can assist,” says Menon.

While it is a good gesture, acceptance of the offer may not be so easy. While the Bangladeshi media and environmentalists have expressed strong concerns over the incident, there seems to be an effort to downplay the disaster in the political establishment of the country. The minister for shipping in Bangladesh has been denying that there would be any long-term impacts of the spill in the 350 square kilometre area where it reportedly spread.

The minister may be in denial mode because he does not want to disturb the existing arrangement. “The shipping minister’s power base is the labour sector, that includes the transport sector,” points out Nishat. He adds that the government’s first reaction to the spill was to ignore it and action was taken when the voices in the public domain became louder. Lack of scientific expertise, politics over the mishap and the ongoing civil unrest in the country is effectively preventing clean up action. What’s more, environmental activists in Dhaka are not willing to speak openly about the spill.

Moreover, says Khan, there is no money in the voluntary or non-government sector in Bangladesh for any major intervention, with or without help from India. “There is also a dearth of capacity among the non-government organisations and civil society in Bangladesh. And those who have the capacity lack mandate,” he adds.

What about the role of regional media, specifically of India, as one of the stewards of a shared heritage? According to A S Panneerselvan, Readers’ Editor of India’s national daily, The Hindu, Sundarbans is not a factor in India’s journey to becoming a regional superpower. “The issues that are important for the government are strategic and economic in nature. The recent Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) strike or prosecution of fundamentalists in Bangladesh would be more important than, say, Sundarbans. Over the years, we have seen the vision of the media becoming more and more similar to the vision of the state. You see a similar pattern in reporting the recent dilution of peoples’ rights in the land acquisition laws in India. Hence, Sundarbans is not an isolated case of a myopic vision, but part of a larger scheme and approach towards issues that are not deemed significant to India’s position in the region,” he says.

Future of Sundarbans

There is however unanimity among people concerned about Sundarbans that the onus is on governments in both countries to ensure that the delta is protected. Responsibility for management and safeguard of the ecosystem has to be joint and shared, and with knowledge and efficiency far greater that what exists. There is no room for an “us vs. them” approach if Sundarbans has to survive. “In ecology it is all about us, and us is all of us!” says Menon.

Khan says both countries have to build institutional and policy frameworks as well as create platforms for collective action at all levels – government or non-government – for Sundarbans. “In this case there is no question of the issue of national security that sometimes seems to be an excuse for inaction. What is needed here is national consensus in both countries for cooperation and to work together,” he says.

Nishat says that relevant knowledge production in both the countries is key to management of regional ecosystems such as Sundarbans in the future. The South Asia University located in Delhi, which he is part of, could be one such place to generate knowledge. Despite his submission that he has had no success so far, he is pushing for subjects that are “not very high-tech, but can cover and address regional issues”, such as masters degrees in disaster preparedness, forestry and wildlife management and international relations focusing more on regional issues. “We do have the South Asia Disaster Management Centre in Delhi. But the mandate of this centre is to work on natural disasters. The scope of such institutions needs to be broadened so that whenever there is a disaster such as the spill, it could come in and help,” he adds.

The responsibility does not stop with Bangladesh and India, according to Danda, as short-term measures need to be taken to prevent further disasters, along with long-term ones. “Bangladesh can and should take the lead in banning river traffic through Sundarbans. But it will mean traffic has to go through the Bay, which will increase cost and replacement of barges with sea-going ships. Then the bigger question is who will bear the cost. Both the countries have committed to the global community the conservation of Sundarbans by designating it World Heritage Site. But the global community should bear the increased cost of transportation. I do not see this happening, though. This is something that should be brought to the fore and possibly this oil spill provides that opportunity,” he states. He further adds that for now, as long as barges are allowed to ply the waters of Sundarbans, it is imperative that both countries remain in state of heightened preparedness.

That there is a long road ahead for safeguarding Sundarbans is clear. The IUCN heads of both countries say they are preparing to address issues in the aftermath of the spill as well as looking at long-term measures to prevent such incidents. But are our governments prepared to walk the talk?

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