Mangroves are classified as the most sensitive to oil spills, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s environmental sensitivity index. The fragile ecosystem, with its rare flora and fauna, is sensitive to even small accidents that can irrevocably tip the ecological balance in the area. Given this, a December 9 accident between a cargo vessel and a tanker carrying furnace oil is posing a grave threat to the Sundarbans, a Unesco-declared World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, what turned the tragedy into a catastrophe, whose impact is yet to be assessed, is that Dhaka was woefully underprepared to deal with the situation, the main being how to contain the spill. There was also a delay in the government’s reaction to the accident because of a confusion over the jurisdiction between the forest and shipping departments. It was also ill-equipped to contain and clean up the mess. In an utter disregard for the safety of the people, the local villagers were asked to mop up the oil using sponges and pans — oil thus collected could be sold back to the company that owns the sunken oil tanker. All of these are irresponsible steps in the extreme. However, the delayed response has resulted in the slick spreading from River Shela, where the accident occurred, to River Passur and other canals clogging over 350 sq kms of the mangrove forest.
Though a bit late in the day the United Nations has sent in its team to assess the disaster and help with recovery, and has asked Dhaka to impose a ‘complete ban’ on commercial vessels in the mangroves. This might not be possible given that these channels are the major lifeline for oil supplies reaching many cities and towns in Bangladesh. But governments need to maintain a delicate — but necessary — balance between economic viability and environmental safety. The oil spill is a wake up call — not just for Bangladesh, but also for India, which shares the Sundarbans with it. Indian officials are on high alert and though the spill has not reached the Indian side of the Sundarbans, India can lend its expertise and help to Bangladesh in its time of need.