Oil tankers permitted in Sundarbans again

Iftekhar Mahmud and Sumel Sharafat | Update:

Despite concerns of the United Nations and environmentalists, the shipping ministry has given a thumbs up to oil tankers to ply through the Sundarbans again. On 9 December, the vessel OT Southern Seven capsized in the river Shela, spilling 3.5 lac litres (350 thousand litres) of fuel oil. The government then declared the route closed for all vessels.

After the oil spill, the forest department managed to clear about one lac (100 thousand) litres of oil from the Sundarbans. The remaining 2.5 lac litres (250 thousand litres) remained in the forest system. Studies carried out by the UN, the forest department and various international agencies, apprehend this will have a long-term detrimental effect on the ecology of the forest.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO sent a letter to the Bangladesh government last September, cautioning that vessels using river route through the Sundarbans and the construction of the Rampal power plant, could have critical consequences for this forest, which was an important world site for biodiversity. If the government fails to prevent this harm, the Sundarbans will lose its status as a world heritage site. UNESCO called upon the environment and forest ministry to take initiative to protect the Sundarbans.

Sultana Kamal, convenor of the national committee for the protection of the Sundarbans and chairman of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), told Prothom Alo, it is wrong to allow oil tankers to use this route again. If such an important forest as the Sundarbans is destroyed, no amount of efforts will be able to retrieve it. But apparently decisions about the forest are being taken by unscrupulous persons. They are taking decisions to use the Sundarbans in their own interests. The government should take a moral stand about protecting the Sundarbans.

On 6 April permission was granted once again to allow oil carrying vessels to use this route. Once again, the shipping ministry did not take permission from the ministry of environment and forests.

Shipping minister Shahjahan Khan told Prothom Alo, allowing vessels to use the river is under the jurisdiction of the inland water transport authorities. They took this decision after consulting the ministry for environment and forests.

Abdullah Al Islam, deputy minister for  environment and forests, told Prothom Alo, minister Anwar Hossain and secretary Kamal Uddin Ahmed were out of the country on official work. The ministry's stand on this issue would be explained on their return.

Risky route: On 5 May, the cargo vessel Jebel-e-Nur sank in the river at Morabhola in the Sundarbans, along with 670 tonnes of MOP fertiliser.

Oil carrying vessels were plying the river at the time. Several such oil carriers were on the river Shela too. There was no visible supervision by the Coast Guard or BIWTA. Yet on 1 March the government had given permission for only a limited number of vessels to use this route, that too under supervision of the government authorities and only during the day.

Boatman Russel Munshi and a few fishermen of Shoronkhola said, on 24 April an oil tanker had come up the river Shela and was turning at the mouth of the river Bhola in Shoronkola, and it almost capsized. The vessels almost tipped over onto four other cargo vessels anchored at the spot.

Quite a few fishermen said every day about eight to 10 oil-carrying cargo vessels used the Shela route every day. The Mongla authorities said, from last months cargo vessels have been using this route every day. The government has not informed the port authorities about the matter.

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