Development in Southwest Bangladesh: Bane for Sundarbans?

Aiming to speed up Bangladesh’s economic development, the government has recently taken initiatives to promote industrial development and expansion, particularly in the southwest region, allowing establishment of several industries by recategorizing them to “Green” from “Red.”

This has become a cause for concern for the environment specialists, who fear such large-scale industrialization of the region, which is home to the Sundarbans, may have a severely adverse affect on the biodiversity and ecosystem of the largest mangrove forest in the world. In a gazette notification published on December 27, 2017, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change reclassified liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) bottling plants and LPG cylinder plants as Green industries – industries that are not harmful for the environment – putting them in the same category as solar plants and biofertilizer factories. The LPG industries were previously categorized as Red – hazardous for the environment – under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 (amended in 2010). There are currently seven LPG bottling factories and one LPG cylinder factory in operation on the periphery of the mangrove forest, declared Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) by ministry, according to the Department of Environment.

The anchored ships at the jetty downloading the LPG [image by: Abu Siddique]

Sixteen other factories are awaiting permit to start their operations in the same area. Because of the reclassification, these 24 factories are now exempted from meeting the conditions, including preparing an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, set by the Department of Environment to ensure environment-friendly industrialization. These conditions include getting environment clearance certificate, formulating environment management plan, and creating plans to control water and air pollution. All these industries are now required to do is to get site clearance from the department. The Sundarbans is a single striped forest covering about 10,000 square kilometres, 60% of which lies in within Bangladeshi territory, and the rest in India. Enlisted as a World Heritage by Unesco, the mangrove forest is a unique habitat to 269 species of wildlife. Apart from the Bengal tiger, Gangetic and Irawaddy river dolphins, primates, Indian fishing cat, Indian otter and spotted deer, many prominent species populate the forest – some of whom are at the risk of extinction. The Sundarbans is also home to 334 species of trees, shrubs and epiphytes – organisms that grow on the surface of plants. It is also a source of livelihood to a large number of people living in the surrounding areas.

Because of the forest’s delicate environment, environment specialists and rights activists are concerned about how the government’s decision to facilitate more industrialization of the area.

“It is very clear that the government has changed its stance to accommodate the hazardous industries near the critical ecosystem of the Sundarbans,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA).

“This [government] move will attract more industry owners to the area [because of the supply route, easy access to resources, and less accountability regarding environmental hazards], which will cause more stress to the forest and its ecosystem,” she added.

Brac University Professor Emeritus Dr Ainun Nishat, a renowned expert in water resource management and climate change, echoed Rizwana’s concern.

“Compared with other petrochemical industries, LPG is more environment-friendly. But the problem lies in its transportation, processing and bottling process. Considering the risks, these industries should be included in the ‘Red’ list. The EIA must be a prerequisite to setting up such factories (near the Sundarbans),” he told the Bengal Delta.

However, When contacted, former environment secretary Ishtiaq Ahmed, who signed the gazette notification, defended the decision by saying: “We took this step following the recommendations from the Department of Environment, as well as following the examples of other countries that have LPG factories.”

More industries, more vessel movement through the Sundarbans

At present, there are 190 different factories that have already been set up in the ECA – a 10km-wide belt surrounding the northeast boundary of the Sundarbans. Most of these factories are already in operation. Because of these industries, there is heavy water vehicle movement on the rivers that run through the forest, carrying raw material and fuel to the factories. Some of the carriers have broken down, leaked fuel, and capsized in the Sundarbans rivers over the years, contaminating the water and the ecosystem. Most of the environment experts’ concern stem from this particular phenomenon, because more factories in the area will lead to heavier water vessel movement through the forest, raising the risks of such accidents occurring more often. “It is obvious that water vessel movement will increase through the forest to and from the factories as there is no alternative route. Their oil spillage will further hamper the forest’s ecology,” Ainun Nishat told the Bengal Delta. This could also accelerate land erosion, which may reduce the forestland, he added. According to the Mongla Port Authority, the number of merchant ships plying through the Pashur River, the main water channel through the Sundarbans, increased nearly fivefold in the last 10 years – from 110 in 2006-07 to 503 in 2016-17. During the same period, the number of reported accidents involving water vessels has also increased in the area. A number of vessels carrying coal and furnace oil has sunk near or inside the Sundarbans since 1984. Five of the big accidents occurred in the last five years, including the furnace oil tanker capsize in the Shela River on December 9, 2014, according to the port authority. In the 2014 incident, when the oil tanker, named Southern Star 7, capsized, it spilled nearly 350,000 litres of black furnace oil in the Shela River.