Oil spill in Sunderbans: Unprecedented Ecological Disaster

Oil spill in Sunderbans:  Unprecedented Ecological Disaster

On November 9th a tanker loaded with furnace oil sank near the Sundarbans, the unique mangrove forests. Sundarbans forest is an important water front of UNESCO world heritage and a globally important heritage area declared by the UN. It is a home to about 260 species of birds and other animals including Royal Bengal Tiger, deer, monkeys, dolphins, crocodiles and pythons. It is intersected by many rivers and their tributaries.

According to the UN, water transport is prohibited in this area of Sunderbans. Although objections were reportedly raised by the forest department and environmentalists to stop this water path, no step was taken by the government to do so.

It was struck by a cargo vessel from behind. The tanker had 3.57 lakh litres of furnace oil. It is reported that a thick layer of furnace oil was floating on the Shela and Pasur rivers covering more than 80km areas at the time of writing seriously endangering the aquatic life in the deep water and plants on the shorelines.


The Sundarbans area is facing disaster and destruction after oil spillage. The thick heavy oil has spread to different canals and rives through various channels and rivers and as such it may likely to cause havoc on the forest and its wild life, fish and other aquatic animals. Fishermen would be without their livelihood because there would no fish in the rivers and they are worried about their future.

The locality of Sunderbans where the oil spillage took place is a roaming area of two endangered dolphin species of the world. Besides many unique water animals are present there. Wild life experts say that all the animals of the Sundarbans would be affected by this oil spillage as they would come to the rivers for drink water. When deers are dead, the food of the tigers would be affected and they would die, thereby a chain of animals would be affected.

It is reported that animals have started to die. The two dead animals were already spotted by a local person—a monitor lizard and an otter along the banks of Shela River. Other animals would start dying within a few days according to forests officials.

Biodiversity would be severely affected. Biodiversity is a measure of the variety of organisms present in different ecosystems. This can refer to genetic variation, ecosystem variation, or species variation (number of species) within an area, biome, or planet.

.Biodiversity is not evenly distributed, rather it varies greatly across the globe as well as within regions. Among other factors, the diversity of all living things (biota) depends on temperature, precipitation, altitude, soils, geography and the presence of other species. It is the richest in the tropics. Marine biodiversity tends to be highest along coasts in the Sundarbans.

The most horrific fact is that the oil spillage would remain the in the ecosystem for up to 50 years, according to wild life experts.

It is reported that the forest department has filed a Tk.100 crore compensation suit against the owners of the oil tanker which capsized on the Shela River.

Bangladesh –a riverine and marine country:

Bangladesh is a riverine and coastal country and oil spill from vessels are not unusual and the authorities must be prepared for it. Given the vessels that are allowed to be transported through this route on a daily basis, it is expected that a major spillage could occur at any time or place in our estuarine or coastal waters.

It is crucial for relevant authorities to prepare a national contingency plan for disposal methods, taking into account the possible range of sizes and types of oil spills likely to occur, and the shorelines likely to be involved. Such disaster requires coordinated multisectoral efforts to contain the damage.

Three Ministries are involved—the Forests and Environment, Shipping ministry and the Relief and Disaster Ministry. It is expected that a co-ordinating cell among them would be set up to step up efforts to restore the affected areas.

It is reported that it is not the first instance of oil spill in our coastal waters but there were two incidents in September where oil spills occurred from vessels but the authorities were not alert enough that such incidents might happen again because vessels were allowed to ply during night which is reportedly against the law.

Furthermore it is reported that forest officials had forewarned the authorities of such accidents and the authorities have either not taken seriously such warnings or have been confident that it will be able to deal with such situation. However the authorities have demonstrated inefficient management in addressing the oil spill. Within hours such oil spill should have been contained through booms, skimmers and sorbents as we witness in any other country if it occurs.

Actions taken:

The Government meanwhile has banned the route for all vessels and this will contribute to the restoration of efforts. The local forest department began the use of fishing nets to sweep away oil. Three vessels of the Bangladesh Navy and BIWTA reached the site. The sunken vessel, Southern Star-7, was tugged to the shores. A nine –member inquiry committee constituted by the Shipping Ministry had reached the site.

A meeting was held in attendance of BIWTA chief where the future steps to counter the problems of the oil spill were discussed. It was decided that the route through Shela River would be banned to avoid such disaster. The Mongla Port authorities have decided to develop capacity for oil spill management.

Meanwhile the authorities have asked the local people to collect the furnace oil from water and sell it to Padma Oil Company agents. Locals have been advised to use fishing nets, sponges or any other manual means to collect oil.

Characteristics of oil spillage:

Four characteristics of oil spill debris influence the potential for immediate and long term oil migration from the debris mass:

  • Oil content
  • Water content
  • Chemical content
  • Biodegradability of solid debris and/or sorbents

Heavy fuel oil, grease, solid paraffins and high molecular weight asphaltenes may migrate or be biologically oxidised before they are evaporated.

Experts say that the furnace oil is very thick which keeps floating over the water and prevents the sunlight from entering within the water endangering the eco-system of aquatic life. If recovery of the oil or dispersion at sea is not feasible options, the oil subsequently reaches the shore, it is usually emulsified and contaminated with a variety of solids which complicate handling and disposal.

Oil collected from the surface of the sea can contain debris such as seaweed, wood, plastic materials of various types, dead birds and animals. Collection and disposal are greatly complicated by the variation in waste composition and appropriate disposal techniques have to be selected for the particular circumstances.

Environmentally and technologically sound disposal of oil spill debris is essential for minimising the environmental damage from an oil spill. In an emergency situation, sufficient time or resources may not be available to evaluate the suitability of alternative disposal options in the area and to choose the one that offers the best conditions for environmental protection, in addition to securing the appropriate methods to dispose of the waste.

Depending on the size and location of the spill, the method and location of final disposal sites and the storage capacity of emergency storage measures implemented at the site of the spill, longer term interim storage is likely to be necessary at existing waste management depots and landfills.


In recent days Maldives had a severe fresh water shortage because fire destroyed a plant that had supplied water to 120,000 city-dwellers. Bangladesh, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Sri Lanka had rushed to help the Maldives from the crisis.

However in the case of Bangladesh , no country has yet offered any assistance to contain the oil spill. We wonder why? In such a disaster cooperative action from other states is necessary because the oil spill would not adversely affect aquatic life of Sundarbans but other living organism in the Bay of Bengal.

It is reported on 12th December that the country director of the UNDP that the organization had been consulting international partners to explore ways to minimise the damage and rehabilitate the globally significant natural heritage—the Sunderbans.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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