Industries irreparably damaging Sundarbans, fish down by half

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By Kushagra Dixit

New Delhi–Rampant industrialisation on the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans is causing irreparable damage, with oil levels in waterbodies rising six-fold and the temperature by over four degrees, pushing wildlife to the edge and reducing the fish population by half, new research has found.

The first of its kind study, a copy of which is with IANS, compares the current condition of about 20 km radius from the periphery of the Sundarbans around the Mongla and Rampal area of Bagerhat district to that prior to 2010 before industries started flocking in.
Spread across 10,000 sq km — of which 62 per cent is in Bangladesh — the Sundarbans, lying in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1997. For Bangladesh, it accounts for 44 per cent of its forest area and 50 percent of its forest revenue.
The research on the world’s largest mangrove forests was conducted from July 2015 to June 2017.

The region currently has over 300 industrial units, including 190 of what are called “severe” units like oil refinery and a cement plant, driven by a 1,320 MW coal-fired power plant that India’s NTPC is setting up at Rampal at a cost of $1.6 billion and which was sanctioned in 2010 — ostensibly to improve ties between the two countries.

While the Bangladesh government says the plant’s location, 14 km from the Sundarbans Reserve Forest, is at a safe distance, experts think otherwise.

“Water temperature increases because of the salinity and chemicals dissolved from industrial discharge and huge vessels plying.

“Different types of chemicals like sulphuric acid are now present in Sundarban’s water,” lead author Professor Abdullah Harun Chowdhury of Khulna University’s Environment Science Department, told IANS.

The report discloses the differences in temperature, oil and chemical contents, density of key species of flora and fauna and the threat to the region’s food security due to the shift and drop in the hatching and breeding ground of crucial varieties of fish.

It also pointed out loss in habitat and population of tigers, monitor lizards, crocodile, dolphins, otters, fishing cat, deer and wild boars, as also major species of birds including the masked finfoot, the ban morog, heron and kingfisher.

The major physico-chemical and biological changes of waterbodies and soil include:

* Common fish dropped from 31-43 species (prior 2010) to 14-20 at present

* Maximum temperature of waterbodies (Poshur river and canals) increased by 4.6 degrees Celsius

* 0.8 degree Celsius rise in air temperature

* Water transparency has dropped from 32 cm to 16 cm

* Total suspended solids (pollutants) increased from 15.8 to 678 microgrammes per litre(mgpl)

* Chemical oxygen demand of water bodies goes from 192 to 584 mgpl.

* Productivity of water drops from 11.4 to 3.0 mgpl

* oil content in water increases from 10.8 to 68 mgpl

* oil content in soil increased from 7.6 to 10.7 mg per kg

* Sulfur in soil increases from 98 to 128 microgrammes per gram of soil

* Phytoplanktons, a key component to sustain the aquatic foodchain, drop from 462 to 199 units per litre

* Zooplanktons, a very small species yet very important to sustain aquatic animals, drop from 126 to 85 units per litre

* Particle pollutant tripled: the oxides of nitrogen and sulfur have more than doubled in the air

The damage recorded goes on. According to the research, due to the salinity — high salt content — 70 percent of Sundri seeds could not be generated. The Sundarban gets its name from the Sundri tree.

“Eggs and hatching of key fish like parshe, khursula, bagda and Harina have dropped from 6,800-9,600 (before 2010) to 1,700-2,400 units per litre.

“Snails dropped from 10-16 individual to only 3-7 per sq metres…Mud crab population dropped from 3-6 per sq mtr to only 0-1,” the report finds.

Only four of seven species of snake could be spotted; three times less monitor lizards were spotted and only three crocodiles could be spotted over two years against 5-6 daily prior to 2010.

Less than half the dolphins were seen; otter spotting dropped from “unlimited” to “only two foot marks”; poor numbers of deer were observed against previous “unlimited spotting”; only 11-16 wild boards were spotted against previous “unlimited spotting”.

Speaking of tigers, the report asserts: “Only 3 to 4 pug marks of tigers were observed in the study period against 9-12 pug marks daily before 2010, while the non-industrial area had 11-15 tiger pug marks.”

Interestingly, the non-polluted areas of Sundarbans had no change on the spotting of animals at present as compared to that before 2010, the report notes.

“It’s because of the assurance of power from Rampal project that such huge industrialisation has taken place… also this had more negative effect on the local population in terms of jobs, earning and quality of life,” Harun added.

Currently hundreds of vessels pass through the Pashur river and connecting canals. Ironically, a 2016 joint report by India and Bangladesh termed these “vessles” as “mobile bombs”. (IANS)

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