BANGLADESH

Bangladeshis toil to clean up oil spill with bare hands

An oil spill in Bangladesh is threatening to destroy rare species, an entire ecosystem, and the economic resources that thousands of people rely on. The spill took place a week ago in Bengal, in the protected region of Sundarbans. Due to the slow reaction of the authorities, locals are trying to mop up their river themselves, using what little means they have.

Advertising

A Sundarbans resident picking up petrol by hand following an oil spill in the Shela river. Photo by Tanim Ashraf.

An oil spill in Bangladesh is threatening to destroy rare species, an entire ecosystem, and the economic resources that thousands of people rely on. The spill took place a week ago in Bengal, in the protected region of Sundarbans. Due to the slow reaction of the authorities, locals are trying to mop up their river themselves, using what little means they have.

On December 9, an oil tanker belonging to the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation hit another ship on the Shela river, which crosses the Sundarbans region. It leaked more than 350,000 litres of petrol, which spread out over nearly 350 square kilometres in this protected region, which is a UNESCO Heritage site. The Sundarbans are home to the world’s largest mangrove forest, which provides important resources for the local population. Nearly 200,000 people hunt and fish there. The region is also home to rare and endangered species, like the Bengal tiger and the Irrawaddy dolphin.

Since this accident, petrol floats at the surface of the Shela River and paints tree trunks and animals black. The Bangladeshi government took two days to react to this catastrophe and send about 200 emergency personnel, including naval police and coast guards.

Many environmentalists and analysts have decried these measures as too timid. The cleanup will be a complex one: out at sea, oil spills can be treated with chemical dispersants, but this would be too dangerous in a region like the Sundarbans, where the chemicals could further damage the ecosystem. Thus, the clean up is taking place manually, a fastidious task that analysts say can’t possibly be effective with so little personnel on hand.

Our Observer tells us that distraught villagers are now taking it upon themselves to clean up their river, with little in the way of protection.

An oil slick on the Shel river. All photos were taken by our Observer. 

Locals trying to clean up their river bare-handed. 

"Fishermen try to contain the oil slicks with nets, and scoop it up with pots"

Tanim Ashraf is an environmental activist.

When I heard about this oil spill, I felt it was my duty to go to the Sundarbans and help the people to clean up their river as much as possible. During the past five days, I’ve surveyed the contaminated areas and concluded that the oil has already spread 80 kilometres down the river. This is a major disaster, and we have very little time to act and try to limit the consequences.

The river’s pollution has a serious impact on the people who live nearby. They depend on this water; they drink it every day and use it for all their needs. Now, they must go buy packs of drinking water in the nearest city, which costs them time and money – and these are very poor people. The economic impact is the worst for fishermen, who are very numerous in these villages. One of them told me that before the spill, he could catch 40 to 60 crabs per day. This weekend, he only caught two.

The fishermen are at the forefront of the villagers’ cleanup efforts. They sail their boats down the river and set up their nets to try to stem the flow of the oil slicks. They then scoop up the petrol by hand with pots, or scratch it off tree trunks. They put it in their boats, and bring it back to their village, where they’ve dug holes to put the petrol in. The oil company’s people then come to the villages to take it away. They buy it back for 30 takas per litre [about 0,30 euros]. It’s a good way for the villagers to make up for some of the money they’re losing because of the spill. But neither the company nor the authorities give them any sort of safety gear, not even gloves. [Editor’s Note: Touching petrol with their bare skin can be dangerous for their health.]

"Locals see this as a stroke of bad luck, which they'll have to deal with as best they can"

The government is in large part responsible for this disaster. Normally, because this river goes through a protected area, it isn’t open for navigation. Ships are supposed to use another river, called Mongla-Ghoshiakali. However, the Indian authorities keeps building dams on their side of this river, and there’s no longer enough water for big ships to sail in. Thus, the Bangladeshi government decided to let ships sail on the Shela river. This makes me furious, especially since it took two whole days before the government sent anyone here to start cleaning up.

In addition, the personnel they sent aren’t doing much. They mostly just supervise, and tell the locals what to do. It’s not always good advice, either – in several places, they’ve told villagers to stock the petrol directly in the ground, but that’s really awful for the soil. I get the feeling that they’ve been ordered to hide the disaster as quickly as possible. It seemed to me that the government representatives were much more active when the television cameras were filming them… Meanwhile, non-profit organisations are coming in to help. It’s just their volunteers and the locals who are getting their hands dirty.

The people who live here are uneducated, they’re not at all involved in politics and have no experience with protests, so I don’t think they’re going to make much noise or ask for reparations. They don’t even really realise that the company and the government are responsible for this disaster. They see it as just bad luck, which they’ll have to face the best they can.

There has been little outcry in the international community following the oil spill, save for the United Nations asking Bangladesh to ban sailing along the Shela river. Bangladesh’s government, which is facing fierce criticism for its handling of the situation, has announced that it would sue the oil company for 10 million dollars; however, many analysts decry this sum as just a drop in the ocean for the company.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).