Prothom Alo Roundtable

Call to close Sundarbans river route

Staff Correspondent | Update:

Roundtable

The river route through the Sundarbans must be closed permanently. There is no guarantee that a worse accident won't take place in future and more oil will be spilled in the forest. Also, the government bodies had no preparation to deal the accident that occurred on Tuesday. Short term and long term preparations must be taken from now to ensure their failure is not repeated.

This was stated by Sundarban researchers and environmental experts at a roundtable on 'Sundarbans in great danger: immediate measures'. Prothom Alo arranged the roundtable at its Kawran Bazar office yesterday, Sunday.The speakers criticised shipping minister Shahjahan Khan for his contention that the oil spill would not harm the Sundarbans. They said that already crabs, dolphins and other animals have begun to die. The accident will have a long term impact on Sundarbans' biodiversity and genetic resources. Integrated efforts are needed to ensure the Sundarbans does not face any such danger again. They advised the government to take stock of the damages done to the world heritage site by this accident.

Brac University Emeritus Professor Ainun Nishat said at the roundtable, it would have been easy to remove this oil by using booms immediately after the accident. Booms could have been made with hollow plastic tubes and nets. The local fishermen of the coast could have helped in this. Then the oil spread could have been contained and the oil could have been remove. But as the government agencies did not do this, the oil simply spread and the damages increased.

Ainun Nishat said that the government was constitutionally bound to protect the country's biodiversity. There had been gross negligence in doing so. He said that the army and the navy should have been called in to help tackle the situation. He also demanded that vessels stop plying through the Sundarbans.

Atiq Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advance Studies, wanted to know why the Mongla Port authorities did not have any boom. He said they could have first used water hyacinth to stop the spread of water and then used booms. He said this accident not only harmed people's livelihood, it also tarnished Bangladesh's image worldwide. He said that the river route must be closed immediately.

Dhaka University professor Abul Bashar termed the Sundarbans as one of the most bio-diverse areas of the world and said there were seven environmental systems within the forest. All of this had been harmed by the oil spill. The harm couldn't be measured in financial terms.

He also questioned how prepared the government was to prevent a repeat of such a disaster.

Dhaka University teacher and political ecology researcher Tanzim Uddin Khan spoke of his experience visiting the Sundarbans immediately after the oil spill. He said that the capsized vessel did not look like an oil tanker. It looked more like a vessel used to transport cement or sand. He questioned how it was allowed to ply through an area of such important biodiversity.

Ishtiaque Sobhan, the World Bank's environmental consultant, said that this river route had once been started in 1973-74, but when debate arose about using the Sundarbans as a river route, the government closed it down. Instead, it excavated a canal, Ghasiakhali, and used that for the plying of vessels. However, with the lack of proper dredging, the canal silted up and from 2011 the river Shyla was used again.

Ishtiaque Sobhan said, on one hand the government declared this area of the Bay of Bengal as a marine sanctuary for wild life, and on the other hand it plans to use this as a route to carry coal to the Rampal power plant.Similarly, Sonadia island is being declared a sanctuary for endangered birds, and on the other hand they are planning a deep seaport there.

Chief forest conservator Yunus Ali said, the forest department has recommended that the river route through Sundarbans be permanently closed for vessels. He said 500 boats would be provided to remove the oil from the river, along with gloves and gumboots for the workers who will remove the oil.

Moderating the meeting, Prothom Alo associate editor Abdul Qayyum said, the government should consult with experts and permanently stop the use of river routes through the Sundarbans to prevent a repeat disaster.

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