Cleaning up an oil spill is extremely difficult even with the best of technology available as seen from countless examples from all over the world. It is particularly tough in India, which lacks a quick response mechanism and the technology to tackle this as the situation in Chennai shows. Over five days after the spill, the coast guard aided by fisherman and local residents are battling to contain it. This brings back memories of how a similar spill threatened the delicate ecosystem of the Sunderbans a couple of years ago. The oil film blocks sunlight leading to the death of many marine creatures, in Chennai turtles have been among the worst affected.
Once sea creatures are covered in oil, they tend to catch a cold, drown or are blinded. The oil also destroys vegetation on the coastline and poses a threat to fishermen. The oil coats the roots of plants and when coastal vegetation dies, the coast becomes vulnerable to greater erosion. In Chennai, those who are engaged in cleaning operations are themselves at risk if they don’t have the right protective clothing. There are three ways in which a spill can be cleaned up, through burning but this causes enormous atmospheric pollution, through skimming using plastic floats though this is not very effective if a large area is affected and by using chemicals to break the oil.
However, the dispersants themselves can be toxic. With an increase in maritime transportation of hazardous substances and given India’s vast coastline, the Chennai disaster should prompt the setting up an effective response machinery and the need to train people in how to deal with this scientifically.
There is a great deal of technology available in other countries which India should acquire. When such disasters take place, there should also be a good dissemination system in place to inform people about how and if they can help.
People, often in a well meaning way, harm the animals affected through improper handling. The spill has now reached the shores of Mumbai, which has promptly alerted people on the dangers of eating contaminated seafood.
A mechanism to deal with oil spills should be made a part of our national disaster management policy without delay so that if this happens again, the danger and damage can be contained much faster and more effectively.