Sundarbans Oil Spill Shows Why Bangladesh’s Rampal Coal Plant is a Bad Idea
By Mowdud Rahman and Aviva Imhof
A shipping collision in the Sundarbans World Heritage Area in Bangladesh has demonstrated the dangers of shipping coal, oil or other toxic products through the area. On 9th December the Southern Star-7 tanker, which was carrying about 350,000 litres of furnace oil, collided with another cargo vessel and sunk. The oil spill has apparently already reached 70 km on either side of the crash site, and continues its toxic spread.
The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest and is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It is one of the last remaining habitats for the Asian tiger and provides habitat for two endangered species of dolphin: the Ganges and the Irrawaddy dolphin. The Sundarbans also acts as a huge natural safeguard against cyclones, storms and other natural disasters.
The oil spill took place in one of three dolphin sanctuaries in the area. Bangladesh government officials have called it an ecological “catastrophe.” The government is hopelessly under-prepared to deal with an oil spill in an area of global significance. While the forest department has already filed cases against the owners of the two ships for compensation, apparently no steps have yet been taken to clear the oil or to bring its spread under control.
According to Professor Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, a rescue vessel removed the oil tanker at around 1 pm today, but oil is still spreading and no activity is visibly present in the site to stop the spillage. Professor Khan, who is in the area, says the water is covered in black oil, as well as the riverbanks. “Adjacent shrimp farm is under threat to be inundated by this spillage”, he said. And though the government ordered boats to stop traveling through the oil spill area, this is being ignored.
This disaster highlights the ongoing risks of using the Sundarbans as a shipping route. The forest department has apparently repeatedly requested that the Sundarbans not be used to transport oil, coal and other toxic chemicals, but this has been ignored by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA).
To make matters worse, the government is now developing a 1320 megawatt coal-fired power station adjacent to the World Heritage Area. The Rampal Coal Plant is a joint partnership between India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board. Construction has started and dredging and land filling is going on.
While the coal plant is located outside of the World Heritage Area, it will require dredging of the Pashur River to facilitate the transport of coal to the plant, and coal will be shipped through the World Heritage Area, presenting a significant threat to the ecological integrity of the Sundarbans.
UNESCO has already expressed concern about the project, stating that
The EIA for the plant does not consider the impact of dredging in the rivers adjacent to the property. Only limited consideration has been given to the transport and transfer of coal in close distance to the property and no mitigation efforts beyond already existing regulations are known. The dredging necessary to keep the channels of the Pashur River open for navigation is likely to alter the morphology of the river channels, which, in combination with erosion and sedimentation caused by the wakes of large vessels, would be likely to affect priority habitat for freshwater dolphins and other aquatic species, such as the critically endangered Batagur turtle (Batagur baska) and vulnerable small clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea). Coal dust released into the environment during transport and transfer is likely to have a significant direct adverse impact on mangroves, fish, and probably freshwater dolphins, amongst other endangered species.
At its last meeting in June 2014, the World Heritage Committee requested “the State Party to undertake a comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to ensure that cumulative impacts of developments in the Sundarbans are adequately assessed, including in relation to the Outstanding Universal Values of the property.” The Bangladesh government was further requested to provide a report to UNESCO by February 1, 2015 on the state of conservation of the property and on the urgent progress required to address the issues raised.
The devastating oil spill this week demonstrates just how vulnerable the Sundarbans is to industrial shipping accidents and how careless the concerned authorities are in maintaining this World Heritage Site.
Transparency International Bangladesh’s Executive Director, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman said, “This accident gives some indication of just how risky it is to use this river route through the Sundarbans and also how dangerous it is to set up the Rampal power plan next to the forest. The government must immediately stop this river route and remove the Rampal power plant project from here, or else we will lose Sundarbans’ status as a World Heritage Site and the forest itself will eventually be destroyed.”
NGOs and community groups are calling on the Bangladeshi government to halt the Rampal Coal Plant and protect the precious Sundarbans forest. The oil spill is devastating, but let’s hope it will be a wake-up call to the government.