Bangladesh, ship carrying coal sinks close to the world’s largest mangrove forest

L’imbarcazione affondata nei pressi del parco nazionale Sundarbans mette a rischio la sopravvivenza delle persone e delle specie animali che abitano la foresta e il fiume.

A cargo vessel carrying 1,235 tonnes of coal sank in Bangladesh. According to experts, slag from coal production contain heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury that represent a threat to human, animal, and plant life.


Sundarbans National Park is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest


The incident occurred on Saturday 19 March, when cargo vessel MV Sea Horse-1 sank in the Shela River, in the heart of the Sundarbans National Park, the world’s largest mangrove forest. The Sundarbans, which extends for 80 kilometres from the coasts, is an ancient forest, the only one left of the majestic jungles that once covered the plains of the Ganges. The area, turned into natural reserve in 1966 and World Heritage Site of UNESCO, is home to an incredible biodiversity including threatened species, such as the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and the South Asian river dolphin (Platanista gangetica).


These are only the most iconic species, as the park is also home to threatened species of rare fish, crabs, otters, crocodiles, and birds. Moreover, the park is home to gipsy families that fish by availing themselves of trained otters. After the ship capsized, the government has suspended other ships from sailing the Shela River, while it hasn’t been salvaged yet. However, similar bans in the past have been withdrawn quickly, environmental activists warn.


Delfino di fiume
The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is a rare dolphin species living in Bangladesh (Roland Seitre/Minden Pictures/Corbis)


In December 2014, another catastrophe occurred the Sundarbans. A Bengalese oil tanker sank after it collided with a cargo vessel, spilling 350,000 tonnes Heavy Fuel Oil into the Shela River. The government had banned cargo ships from plying the Shela River, but within a month the ban was lifted. In May 2015, a ship carrying 500 tonnes of fertilizer sank in Bhola River in the Sundarbans, while in October a coal-laden cargo vessel carrying 510 tonnes of coal sank into the Passur River.


Despite the long series of incidents, similar ships continue sailing this unique and fragile ecosystem. “When coal-carrying vessels sink, these heavy metals mix with the water, endangering aquatic life,” said Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, a Professor at Khulna University in Bangaladesh. “Mercury from coal is converted into methyl mercury, a toxic compound that harms people and others animals like crocodiles, dolphins, birds, fishing cat, and otter that consume contaminated fishes. Population of the aquatic animals will decrease and long-time impact on aquatic lives like loss of breeding capacity, habitat loss, injury of respiratory organs, hearts, eyes and skins will happen due these heavy metals.”


Donne che catturano gamberi
Many people depend on the forests and the rivers of the Sundarban


According to Chowdhury, heavy metals can also affect the growth and survival of major mangrove trees such as the Sundari tree (Heritiera fomes) and damage the spawning grounds of shrimp, which represent a source of livelihood for local communities. Bangladesh’s forest department has filed a case against the owner of MV Sea Horse-1 and five others involved and formed a committee to investigate the incident.


Despite the numerous catastrophes, Bangladesh is planning the construction of a coal-fired thermal power station near the Sundarbans. Last week, hundreds of people marched to protest against the construction of the plant. The rally, named “the long march”, departed from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, and covered 250 kilometres to get to Rampal district, at the border with the Sundarbans. Numerous environmental activists from Bangladesh and India took part to the demonstration.


“We cannot allow any move to destroy this world heritage,” said Ruhin Hossain, one of the organisers of the march. “The Sundarbans has been serving as a protective fence for nature as well as the habitation of the whole southern region of the country. More than one million people’s livelihood depends on the Sundarbans while the forest is protecting more than 40 million people from natural disasters”. According to a report by South Asians for Human Rights, the realisation of the new power station has already forced hundreds of families to move away, with no notice and adequate compensation.


La "lunga marcia" in Bangladesh
Protesters during the long march against the contruction of the coal-fired thermal power station


The association says that the power plant, alongwith intensifying the use of coal in one of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change in the world, will exponentially increase pollution and the risk of environmental disasters during the carriage of coal using rivers across the forest.

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