THE MV Sagar Nandini 2, a vessel with 11 lakh litres of fuel oil, sank in the River Meghna after colliding with another ship at Tulatuli in Bhola sadar on December 25, 2022. Most of the 11.34 lakh litres of octane and diesel in the ship spilled into the Meghna. The oil from the sunken ship in Bhola is polluting the water of the river.
Fishermen are unable to catch fish from the river due to the pungent smell of oil. Many fishermen in the area suspended their fishing activities. Local residents and environmental activists are concerned that the oil-spill will have long-term impact on the local environment, fauna and biodiversity.
A Coast Guard Bangladesh team has been working to remove the spilled oil in the river. However, any delay and failure to clean up the thick layer of oil from the water could risk the nearby hilsa sanctuary and the river’s aquatic life. Since the ship itself is not removed from the water, it is hard to assess the amount of oil spill and assess the extent of damage. Moreover, the oil spilled from the ship is quickly moving towards the sea due to the ebb tide.
The major risk however is the impact on the breeding of hilsa. There are currently four hilsa breeding grounds and six sanctuaries in Bangladesh. From Mirsarai in Chattagram to Lalmohan in Bhola is the largest breeding area of hilsa. Hilsa sanctuaries are mainly located on the river Meghna and its basin and the confluence of the Padma and the Meghna. About 100 kilometres of area of the lower Meghna river basin in Chandpur, 90 kilometres of area of Shahbazpur branch of the Meghna in Bhola and about 100 kilometres of area of the river Tentulia are part of these sanctuaries.
The rivers surrounding Bhola, especially the Meghna, have hosts hilsa almost everywhere. Although it is not the fishing season, it is still a prime breeding ground for hilsa. According to World Fish, 86 per cent of the world’s total hilsa is produced in Bangladesh and among the districts of Barisal division, Bhola produces the most hilsa. In the last financial year, about 190,000 tons of hilsa was collected from this region. Bhola is an island district and it is surrounded by rivers. The river Meghna moves through north and east of Bhola and both rivers merge into the Bay of Bengal.
A joint study by researchers from Chittagong University and Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Bangladesh said that the presence of hilsa is more in the Meghna basin, because food plants and water particles necessary for hilsa are available in rivers and estuaries in Bhola. According to them, only two per cent of Bangladesh’s hilsa production comes from the river Padma. Experts therefore fear that if the oil spreads further, it can be a disaster for the fish. Fisheries experts said the oil would cause huge damage to fish eggs and food, and therefore measures needed to be taken to remove the oil quickly. Oil does not stay in one place because of tides. Incidents of oil spill in the rivers of Bangladesh are not new.
On November 15, 2021, a foreign ship called MV Elinabi, located in Harbaria 9 area of Sundarban area, loaded 600 tons of coal and left for Dhaka, collided with another foreign ship and sank. Earlier, on October 9, 2021, a lighter cargo ship named MV Beauty of Lohagra 2 sank in the area of Fairway Boya Dublar of Mongla Port with 1200 tonnes of stones. On March 30, 2021, a lighter cargo vessel named MV Ifsia Mahin carrying 400 tonnes of coal sank in the Passur channel of Mongla Port. A coal-carrying ship MV BB-1148 sank on February 27, 2021 in the Passur channel of Mongla Port. About 750 tonnes of coal inside the ship polluted the river water.
The sinking of these cargo ships have been threatening the biodiversity and environment of the southern region. In fact, since September 2014, the number of such accidents in the rivers of the southern part of the country has increased at an alarming rate. In less than 10 years, more than a dozen cargo-laden lighter ships have capsized in the rivers flowing through and around the Sunderbans. Furnace oil, fertiliser, coal, raw materials for making cement, clinker, slag, gypsum in these sunken ships are polluting these rivers.
Environmental experts fear massive loss of aquatic, forest and animal resources due to sinking of these ships. According to Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan, ‘The sinking of ships loaded with oil, fertiliser and coal is causing a serious disaster for the environment, wildlife and biodiversity. Since coal, fertilisers, oil etc. are chemical poisons and harmful substances, they are adversely affecting the food cycle and reproduction of aquatic life. The concerned authorities are not taking any action even though ships loaded with coal, oil and fertilisers are sinking every now and then.’
Manpura upazila is an island separated from the mainland of Bhola district. This upazila has already gained wide recognition throughout the country as a tourist spot and every year thousands of tourists visit this island. Moreover, the newly developed Sonachar to the west of Manpura, Nijhum Island and Hatia to the east, Char Sakuchi, Char Nizam, Dhal Char to the south, Char Kukri Mukri to the southwest is full of natural resources including spectacular mangrove forests, which easily attracts visitor. According to Manpura Forest Department, 30 thousand acres of land has been afforested in Manpura upazila in three parts.
These forests have different species of trees including Kewra, Bine, Sundari, Kakra, Gewa, Karamcha, Golpata. There are various species of animals and birds in this forest including deer, wild buffalo. This forest has been protecting the coastal people from natural calamities. The beautiful mangrove forests of the green belt project of these areas have protected the people of this island from storms, floods and tides for ages, as well as the forest has a sanctuary for various wild animals including the magical deer. The environment, fauna and biodiversity of the area however are threatened by the sinking of oil tankers.
Environmental experts have expressed deep concern over the sinking of ships in the river and lack of regulation and an outdated system to monitor water traffic. The contamination of river water due to the recurring incidence of cargo vessel capsize in this area has already impacted the reproduction of aquatic animals including hundreds of species of fish and the breathing roots of the trees on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Researchers say that these mangrove forests are the protector of biodiversity and environment.
During Sidr, Ayla and Bulbul, these mangroves have acted as a protective shield, but the negligence of the government has risked the existence of these fauna and natural forests. The government must therefore ensure that the capsized ship is quickly removed and oil is cleaned from the river. At the same time, the government must address the reported negligence to prevent future capsize of ships in this area.
Md Zillur Rahaman is a banker and columnist.