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Accidental Oil Pollution in the Sundarbans: Preparedness for Response to Ecological Disaster



Sundarbans is the largest single mangrove forest of the world. This forest occupies near about 10,000 sq km of which Bangladesh includes about 6,000 sq. km and remaining 40% lies within Indian part. The forest is rich in biological diversity. There are 35 species of core mangrove, 334 species of flora, 426 species of wildlife, 49 species of mammals, 315 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles and 8 species of amphibians. 3.5 mill people   directly/indirectly depends on its resources and 50,000-60,000 work inside the forest at least 6 months of  a year. Characterised by thick vegetation, dominated by Sundari,  Gewa, Goran  and Keora the forest is also the home of Royal Bengal tiger and Spotted Deer.  With the view to conserve the biodiversity of the forest,  three sites covering 1397 sq. km. area have been declared by Bangladesh Government as Wildlife Sanctuaries in 1977. These are Sundarbans-East (Area 312 sq. km): Sundarbans-South (Area 370 sq. km) and Sundarbans West (Area 715 sq. km). These three sites have also been declared as World Heritage (798th ) by UNESCO in 1997. However, considering the importance of biological richness of the forest density and also as an important World Heritage site, it is the responsibility of Bangladesh and global communities  to protect its  environment and ecology. The frequent plying of mechanized boats, tankers and cargoes through the waterways of the forest is a major threat to forest ecology, particularly due to accidental pollution. This potential threat became a really when a oil tanker, named Southern Star-7, was sunk  in the Sela river on  9 December, 2014 after been hit by a  cargo vessel  and about 3,50,000 liters of furnace oil was discharged and spread over 40 km in the forest area. This paper is an overview of this incident of accidental oil pollution and the whole issue of management of such man-induced ecological disaster.

Sundarbans forest has a complex network of about 1700 km tidal rivers. Such rivers are in north-south alignment and width is normally 1.5-2 km. However, once all the creeks are included in the count, the total length of rives is about 15,000 km and these are the lifelines of the forest. The elevation of the forest floor is about 1-2.1 m from MSL The tidal amplitude varies from 2-6 m and influences more than 50 km inland. During the high spring tide, the tidal range is 2.3-3 times higher than the neap tide.  The accident took place during the winter period and it was a low tide level of neap tide cycle. As consequence the dispersion of oil within the forest coverage remained limited, mostly along the river side of major rivers. Despite such favorable natural settings and timing, the immediate responses   taken by concerned authorities remained questionable. It was neither an effective planning to arrest oil spreading, removal of spilled oil and management of solid waste, nor an appropriate use of technological supports available in hand to immediate response to such disaster. The incident clearly shows the lack of preparedness by all concerned authorizes to mitigate such ecological disaster.  Due to absence of any national contingency plan to response oil spill, the commanding authority and institutional responsibilities have not yet been properly spelled-out, which had off-course been reflected as an ad-hoc approach to arrest the spreading of oil by local people in a very crude and un-healthy manner, There was no use of any booms, skimmers, or any other mechanized instrumental supports. The whole rescue process after Sela river incident reflects the week and ineffective preparedness of Bangladesh in response to such ecological disaster, despite its high credibility at global context as a nation to mitigate all kinds of natural disasters.

The accidental oil pollution at Sela river has its long-term effect on Sundarbans ecology. The management of oil pollution requires two-fold approaches: one is the immediate and effective response to arrest the spread and remove the oil; second is to reduce the consequence, particularly on forest and river ecology. It is necessary to develop a national effort to continuous monitoring the consequence of this incident, at least for next five years. To avoid such catastrophic events in future, it is also necessary to close all water routes through-out the forest area and develop new routes, avoiding the forest ecosystem. Immediate measure need to be taken to re-open the Mongla-Ghashiakhali channel, until a new effective solution is found.

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