The children using their hands and utensils to clean up a massive oil spill in the world’s largest unbroken stand of mangrove forests are getting some backup. U.S. oil spill experts joined a U.N. team to respond to this ecologically devastating and hazardous oil spill in the lush, carbon-rich mangrove forests of Bangladesh’s renowned Sundarbans region, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sundarbans means “beautiful forest.”
In the early morning of December 9, foggy weather in the estuarine waters of the Sela River caused a cargo ship to ram the Southern Star 7, a tanker ship laden with between 66,000 and 92,000 of thick furnace oil bound for one of the nation’s oil-burning power plants. The tanker had dropped anchor because of the fog, and when the cargo ship ran into it, the collision was strong enough to kill the tanker’s captain and spill most of the thick, black, sludgy liquid cargo.
The estuary was protected as a sanctuary for rare dolphin species, but that designation did not stop the oil from gushing into the mangrove forest. Even worse, twice-daily tidal flows in and out of the estuary spread the oil spill over 40 miles along the Sela and Pusur Rivers, deep into the area’s mangroves, shorelines, and wetlands.
The Bangladeshi government’s chief forestry official for the region, Amir Hossain, told reporters on December 16 that “the catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans, and we don’t know how to tackle this.” For more than a week following the collision, oil spill response comprised little more than local fishermen, villagers, and even children manually scooping up oil with buckets and pans, with no protective gear.
Following an official request from the Bangladeshi government, the United Nations has mobilized an international response team. That group left for the Sundarbans on Monday, “comprised of multi-disciplinary experts from seven different countries including Bangladesh,” according to the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh. The team consists of two American experts (one from NOAA and one from the Coast Guard) two French water pollution experts, a Finnish disaster coordinator, a Swedish disaster management expert, a Japanese logistic coordinator, a Canadian oil spill expert, and two environmental disaster experts from UNDP. The team was chosen for this expertise, as well as the specialization in mangrove forest systems.
In support of the Bangladeshi government, the team will assess the situation, work to contain the spill, clean it up, and “develop an action plan for a phased response and recovery.”
The situation facing the response crew is as daunting as it is depressing.
First, the fishermen and their children who have been the front line defense in the cleanup effort have been covered in oil containing toxic chemicals all day, and bring the fumes home with them at night. As Quartz put it, exposure to these chemicals “can have dire digestive, pulmonary, and dermatological effects and, if the exposure extends over time, also neurotoxic effects.”
BP oil spill cleanup workers, who had the benefit of protective gear and other resources, still faced an increased risk of cancer, leukemia, and a host of other illnesses. While cleaning up that spill, workers reported feeling dizzy, head pain, asthmatic symptoms, and coughing up blood. The people cleaning up the oil spill in Bangladesh also reported feeling sick after a few days.
There are also reports of dead, oil-slicked birds, reptiles, and river otters being found. Additional impacts to the region’s extraordinary wildlife are expected, given that it serves as an internationally listed wetland area home to numerous imperiled species included on the IUCN Red List, including the Bengal tiger, Pallas’s fishing eagle, the Irrawaddy dolphin, and the critically endangered river terrapin.
Local scientists also expect long-term impacts. The spilled oil will impair photosynthesis by phytoplankton at the base of the region’s foodwebs, while the toxic compounds in oil are expected to harm and kill fish that the region’s wildlife and human communities depend on, just as many of the species enter the breeding season.
The spill also threatens what has recently been identified as one of the world’s foremost assets in fighting climate change — the mangrove forests that capture and store atmospheric carbon more efficiently than any other ecosystem known on the planet. Because mangrove trees capture carbon and store it in the sub-aquatic soil for long periods of time, degradation of mangrove forests turn these ecosystems from effective carbon sinks into significant sources of carbon dioxide emissions.
This isn’t the first time that the Sundarbans have been threatened by fossil fuel development. Last year, Bangladeshi and Indian lawmakers quietly inaugurated a plan to build a 1,320-megawatt coal plant 5.5 miles downstream from the Sundarbans. The plant would require a huge amount of water to be desalinated, upsetting the estuarine balance of the region and threatening the tidal waters with an estimated half a million metric tons of “sludge and liquid waste” each year.
Shiva Polefka is a Policy Analyst for American Progress's Ocean Policy program.