Sundarbans at stake as movement of vessels multiplied

Vessels carrying industrial raw materials from India travel through the Sundarbans down the Bojboja river from Angtihara customs station in Koyra. The photo wsa taken on Wednesday afternoon at Bojboja in KoyraEmtiaz Uddin

Over the past dozen years, river transport on the Bangladesh-India river route through the Sundarbans has almost doubled.

According to BIWTA standard practice, no vessel is to travel through the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, from sunset to sunrise.

However, that is being ignored. This unregulated commute by vessels is eroding the river banks. The forest area is shrinking. The river is being polluted when vessels often sink carrying cargo of coal, cement raw materials, etc. This is a threat to the biodiversity of the forest.

In 1972 Bangladesh and India signed the first Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade, aimed at expanding trade between the two countries by river routes. Under this protocol, a few hundred cargo-carrying lighter vessels use the river route of the two countries every month.

These vessels start from Hemnagar in India, cross the Raimangal river border and travel down Sundarbans' Raimangal, Kanchikata, Malancha, Arpangashia, Batula rivers to the Angtihara customs station in Koyra.

Vessels anchored in front of the Angtihara Customs Station at Khulna's Koyra upazila. Recently taken picture
Saddam Hossain

After completing all the paper work there, the vessels go through Sundarbans' Shakbaria, Bojboja, Aroya Shibsha, Shibsha rivers to Mongla or Khulna via Nalian-Chalna. The route from Chalna to Raimangal is almost 122km. Of this, around 100km is within the Sundarbans. It takes at least 8 hours for the vessels to cross this distance.

Chief Forest Conservator of Khulna zone, Mihir Kumar Doe, told Prothom Alo, unregulated vessel movement through the river will naturally damage the biodiversity. More alarming is that the movement of vessels has multiplied hugely. This is harming the forest. A research initiative has been taken up, funded by the World Bank, to see how far the damage is taking place. Action will be taken once the report is final.

International Day of Forests is being commemorated today, 21 March.

Vessel movement doubled

According to records at Angtihara Customs Station, in the year 2023, a total of 8,342 vessels moved between the two countries through this inland water route. In a month, 695 vessels used this route on average. In 2022 this number was 837. In the first two months of this year, 701 vessels used the route on average.

Even a decade or so ago, the number of vessels using this route was almost half. In 2012, a total of 4,281 vessels used this route. The average number of vessels using the route per month had been 357. In 2013 the total number of vessels using this route was 4,328, which as 361 on average per month.

Sources in Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) said that over the past two decades, the cement industry expanded exponentially in the country. The cement raw material, fly ash, was mostly imported from India. As the cement factories were on the river banks, this river route was used to bring in the fly ash. It is also more cost effective to use the river route than land route to transport goods. That is why vessel movement has increased.

Vessel arriving at the Sundarbans with equipment of the Indian company at the Rampal thermal power plant. Bojboja, Sundarbans, Khulna, 22 March 2018
Saddam Hossain

Vessels move at night too

Joint director of BIWTA river conservancy and pilotage department, Mohammed Ashraf Uddin, said that with the increase in trade between the two countries, the use of this route, approved by the shipping ministry, has increased too. According to the standing practice, no vessel can move down this route between sunset and sunrise, that is, at night. Even the vessels with pilots from BIWTA have been given such directives.

Speaking to the forest department, local people and persons working with the vessels, it was learnt that a large part of the river route runs through the Sundarbans. Without any consideration of the time of day or night, around 20 to 22 vessels move down the river every day, depending on the tide. Most of the vessels travelling from Bangladesh to India are empty. The vessels return from India loaded with cement raw material fly ash, coal, furnace oil, boulders, steel goods and such.

During a visit to the Angtihara customs station at Koyra on 4 March, around 20 or so lighter vessels were anchored along the Shakbaria river in the Sundarbans near the station. Nearby was the Angtihara river police outpost and the immigration police check post. Master of the MV Padmar Par-1, Saiful Islam, said, "We have no fixed time. We navigated the vessel in the night of 3 March through the forest and reached the Angtihara customs station jetty."

Md Jamal of MV Yusha Moni said, "Angtihara customs station and the immigration check post basically check our papers and give us clearance. The same work is carried out at the Hemnagar port in Kolkata. But the customs and immigration do not operate at night there. Only the Angtihara customs station works round the clock."

Angtihara customs station inspector Md Korban Ali said, "Every month over 600 vessels use this route. There is no provision to collect revenue here. Out work is just to record the arrival and departure of vessels in the register."

Vessels move freely with raw materials for cement and other industries via the customs station at Angtihara, Koyra, down the Bojboja river in the Sundarbans. Wednesday afternoon
Emtiaz Uddin

Moving through the sanctuaries

In 1992 the Sundarbans was recognised as a Ramsar site for its bounty of biodiversity. In 1997 UNESCO recognised the Sundarbans as a World Heritage, following an application by the Bangladesh government. Along this river route are Pankhali, Dhangmari, the Shibsha wildlife (dolphins) sanctuary and the Sundarbans West wildlife sanctuary. Here lives the endangered Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphin. Experts feel that one of the main reasons endangering dolphins is excessive movement of river vessels. According to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2012, any work in the habitat of endangered species that harmful to their natural movement and breeding, is prohibited.

National consultant of the Dolphin Conservation Action Plan and Jahangirnagar University zoology department's Professor Abdul Aziz said, the Sundarbans is the last sanctuary for the Irrawaddy dolphin. The Sundarbans is also the habitat of the Gangetic bottle-nose and other species of dolphins.

As it is, the movement of engine-run vessels through the Sundarbans is harmful to the rich biodiversity and the sensitive ecology. Animals like the Bengal tiger, deer, dolphin and crocodile are the most threatened.

Experts say, more harm is done at night than in the day. That is when the animals rest. The harsh noise and the waves create panic among the animals. The forest act, the wildlife conservation act and the Sundarbans tourist regulations prohibit the movement of any kind of engine-run vessels in the forest at night.

15 capsizes in 7 years

According to the forest department, over the past seven years around 15 vessels carrying coal, boulders and fly ash have capsized, mostly in and around the Sundarbans. On 29 December, a cargo vessel carrying fly ash capsized in the river Shibsha, just three kilometres from the Sundarbans. The vessel was salvaged around two months later. By then around 1,500 metric tonnes of fly ash had spread through the river.

Earlier in 2022, Sea Gentle, a vessel carrying fly ash, sunk in Sundarbans' Shakbaria river near the Angtihara customs station.

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River erosion makes matters worse

River erosion has increased in a new river of the Sundarbans due to the increased movement of vessels. The erosion is harming the trees. Erosion was recently visible at the rivers Kanchikata and Jhapjhapia. The local forestry officers say the erosion of the river banks is decreasing the size of the forest. Rivers that used to be 20 to 30 metres in width are now 50 to 60 metres.

The Sundarban West Forest Divisional Officer, Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, said that several letters had been written to the higher authorities to stop the movement of vessels in order to protect the biodiversity. The vessels pass through the sanctuaries making a deafening noise. In the previous survey, there were no tigers detectable in the forest by the river. Due to the vessel movement, the aquatic animals were in grave danger too. Fuel from the vessels was leaking into the river and the hot water was creating an imbalance in the river temperature. All this is having a serious impact on biodiversity.

Prof. Abdul Aziz said, without research it cannot be said what impact this river route has had on wildlife. But they had noted that even a decade ago, the Kanchikata river was like a narrow canal. With its banks on either side eroding, it is now very wide. He feels this is because of the vessel movement.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had excavated the Ghashiakhali canal in Mongla so as to halt the movement of vessels through the Sundarbans
Sharif Jamil, Coordinator, Waterkeepers Bangladesh

Wildlife trafficking

There are allegations that the vessel officers are used to smuggle deer meat. On 6 March last year four crew of a vessel, in possession of deer meat, were accosted by local people near the Angtihara bazaar and handed over to the police. Local resident Rafiqul Islam said, after work at the Angtihara customs station, every day 20 to 25 vessels leave. It is heard that the officers of these vessels are used to smuggle venison.

Forest officer Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain said, it is not the jurisdiction of the forest department to check the cargo of the vessels. There is always the apprehension of wildlife being smuggled through these routes.

Making matters even worse

At the initiative of the government, tourist trips were arranged by the Dhaka-Kolkata river route in 2019. It was shut down in March the same year as it was not profitable. But in November last year passenger vessels began using the Dhaka-Kolkata route. Bangladesh's tourist vessel MV Rajarhat-C', has been regularly carrying tourists.

Recently a number of luxury Indian cruise vessels came by river to Bangladesh. The first cruise vessel came in February last year and the British newspaper The Guardian publish an article about how this luxury cruise was a threat to the Gangetic dolphin.

Vessels carrying raw materials from India are travelling via the Angtihara customs station down the Bojboja river in the Sundarbans. Wednesday afternoon
Emtiaz Uddin

Alternatives suggested

Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh, Sharif Jamil, said that immediately after independence Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had excavated the Ghashiakhali canal in Mongla so as to halt the movement of vessels through the Sundarbans. He said, the Bangladesh-India river protocol is an important matter. Even so, if the Sundarbans is to be saved, then an alternative route must be devised in order to step vessels moving through the Sundarbans.

Khulna University's professor of the environmental science discipline Abdullah Harun Chowdhury said that it is apprehended that long term use of this route will result in long term harm. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, vessels would pass through the Shyala channel of the Sundarbans before, but that has stopped. If the forest is to be saved, this route (Chalna-Angtihara) has to be dropped. Rather than going through the forest, the vessels can go around the forest. The route may be a little longer, and costs may increase.

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