Oil spill: Not another Bangladeshi catastrophe

By Elsa BuchananInternational Politics reporter

After initial news reports relayed pictures of the oil spill “catastrophe” in Bangladesh last week, the media have fallen somewhat silent. Disasters are so common in Bangladesh that they go unnoticed.

Children covered in fuel oil up to their waist are trying to gather the sticky slick using buckets. Local fishermen, trudging in dark waters, are using pots and sacks to collect the viscous fuel.

Yet, it is in the quasi indifference of the international community that an oil spill from a wrecked tanker is ravaging a global biodiversity treasure straddling Bangladesh and India.

After colliding with another vessel on 9 December, the tanker Southern Star 7 carrying an estimated 350,000 litres (75,000 gallons) of oil has dumped hundreds of litres of heavy fuel into the waters of the country’s protected 10,000 sq km (3,900 sq miles) Sundarbans delta, a Unesco heritage site.

The slimy oil threatening aquatic life in the largest mangrove forest in the world has now spread over a 350-square-kilometer area. It is home to several endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger, Ganges and Irawadi dolphins.

But after initial news reports relayed information about what the Bangladeshi authorities have branded an ecological “catastrophe”, the media have fallen somewhat silent. Disasters are so common in Bangladesh that they go unnoticed.

In neighbouring India, only one question was asked: “Will the oil spill affect us?” This morning, Indian authorities could breathe again: they announced the Indian side had been spared by the spill.

On the Bangladeshi mangrove-fringed islands, however, the reality is quite different. Local news footage has revealed lines of oil-blackened shoreline and crocodiles covered in the black ink. There have been sightings of dead fish and crabs. Birds are struggling to spread their wings, glued together by the thick fuel.

“This catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans, and we don’t know how to tackle this,” Amir Hossain, chief forest official of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, admitted to the local press.

It is not only the stench of oil that villagers and fishermen are facing. The Sundarbans is a pantry for millions of people. The oil spill will directly affect 200,000 local villagers who hunt, fish or collect honey there. Moreover, the villagers also need the mangrove for protection: it breaks the giant waves that can swallow up entire villages during the cyclone season.

Yet, it was only after the villagers started cleaning up with their bare hands, sponges and pans, that the country’s authorities launched a small-scale clean-up. But as it did, the government also warned about Bangladesh’s lack of hardware and experience for a major effort.

The government sent a ship carrying oil dispersants to the area. The state-owned petroleum corporation Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC, which denied any responsibility in the tragedy) has been using buoys to restrict the slick, and local fishermen have been ordered to use nets to try to stop the oil entering small canals.

But activists say chemicals in the oil dispersants used could harm the delicate ecology of the Sundarbans. Worse, some are claiming that damage from the oil spill has already been done.

The response to the disaster has been relayed, examined and condemned on social media, where Bangladeshi citizens vented out their anger against the authorities.

Abu Naser Khan, environmentalist and chairman of Save The Environment Movement (POBA), has also publicly criticised Dhaka’s mop-up.

“In Bangladesh, the government has done nothing for days, which only made the situation worse, and then sent a team of experts. And now, to redeem himself, it is claiming10 million euros to the oil company [BPC] without having any idea of the damage!” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, pictures of the choked mangrove circulating on Twitter may have raised awareness about the extent of the tragedy online, but not one country has come forward to help Bangladesh.

Harun ur Rashid, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to the UN has deplored the attitude of the international community with regards to the disaster.

In the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star, Mr Rashid condemned the fact his country is left to its own devices – especially highlighting its lack of experience to handle such a disaster.

He said: “No country has offered to help contain the oil spill. We all wonder why?”

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