Having no oil-spill management capacity, the government continues stopgap measures to remove the furnace oil spread over vast areas of the Sundarbans, whose biodiversity is at a serious stake.
The authorities have not sought any foreign assistance to control the spread, after an oil tanker carrying 3.58 lakh litres of furnace oil capsized in the Shela river near Mongla on December 9.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday directed the Khulna divisional commissioner to accelerate the process of the manual clean-up with the help of locals, which she described as very effective.
“There is no alternative to this,” Abdullah Al Islam Jacob, deputy minister for forest and environment, told The Daily Star.
The remarks come at a time when plants in a vast part of the Sundarbans are already smeared with oil, and the aquatic resources are at grave risks.
Of the 3.58 lakh litres with which the vessel capsized, some 2.25 lakh litres oil spread initially over 50 to 60km stretch of the Shela and Pashur rivers.
“The danger is that the oil has spread over the rivers, canals and creeks across the Sundarbans,” said noted environment expert A Atiq Rahman.
The oil in the creeks would have adverse impacts. As the breathing roots of the trees are covered by the oil, they will just die, he added.
Also, aquatic resources like dolphins, which have a sanctuary in the Sundarbans, and crabs are among the most vulnerable species and they will be affected the most, said Atiq, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.
According to him, the oil spread could have been controlled even by locally made containment booms and by using hyacinths.
Certain amount of the oil has been washed away in the sea with the tides, but the amount is paltry because the tide in winter is weak.
“The nature will now take its own course [to clean itself],” he added.
Jacob said the forest department yesterday deployed another 80 boats for the clean-up. On Saturday, the department had deployed 120 boats and 200 workers to collect the oil from the rivers using fishing nets, sponges and other manual means.
Until yesterday, some 50,000 litres of the oil has been collected, said officials at the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA).
Jacob said they deployed three trawlers yesterday to wash the plants and collect the oil from the water.
“If we get good results, we will increase such trawlers. For now, there is no other option,” he told The Daily Star.
The government will undertake its next course of actions after a technical committee submits a detailed report by December 18.
Golam Sarwar, an official of Prantik Group, said he verbally proposed using containment booms to the BIWTA officials in Mongla on Thursday and placed a written proposal to the shipping ministry on Saturday.
According to the US Environment Protection Agency, containment booms are used to control the spread of oil to reduce the possibility of polluting shorelines and other resources.
It is also meant to concentrate oil in thicker surface layers, making recovery easier. In addition, booms may be used to divert and channel oil slicks along desired paths, making them easier to remove from the surface of the water.
BIWTA Chairman Shamsuddoha Khondokar, however, said containment booms might not be effective in this case because of the tides in the rivers.
The China Harbour, which is dredging Mongla-Ghasiakhali channel, had tried with its 3km-long pipe to restrict the oil, but failed, he added.
Atiq Rahman suggested management of the crisis by adapting a short, medium and a long-term action plan on the basis of detailed analysis of what happens to the ecosystems of the rivers and the forests due to the slick.
He also strongly recommended a permanent ban on plying of commercial vessels through the Shela river.
'OXYGEN LEVEL NORMAL'
The environment and forest ministry has claimed the level of dissolved oxygen in the Shela is normal.
“The level of dissolved oxygen was 6.9ml per litre on average in the Shela river today [yesterday] while the minimum requirement of oxygen for plants is 5ml per litre,” said Anwar Hossain Mallick, director Khulna, Department of Environment.
They examined the water at 12 points, including Mrigamari and Jaymuni.
According to Mallick, the level of dissolved oxygen never dropped after the slick.
In a press release, the environment and forest ministry yesterday claimed the average level of dissolved oxygen was 6.5ml per litre at Baniashanta, 6.5 at Dalmaria, 6.4 at Karamjal, 6.3 at Chandpai and 7 at Jaymunirgol.