Govt reopens Sundarbans river traffic ignoring call from UN experts
Less than a month after shutting it to commercial traffic, Bangladesh has reopened the Shela River route inside the oil spill-stained Sundarbans in a move that should shock environmentalists and experts, and spark fresh concerns.
The U-turn, effective from Wednesday, was decided at an inter-ministry meeting, chaired by Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan, on Tuesday amid pressure from the vessel workers.
The route will remain operable until the Mongla-Ghasiakhali Channel is revived.
Oil tankers, however, will not be allowed to use the world’s largest mangrove forest that is home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tigers and rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins.
Minister Khan, who is a leader of the pro-government transport workers, had rejected an environment ministry proposal to permanently shut the route after an oil-tanker shipping over 350,000 litres of furnace oil sank there on Dec 9.
The government temporarily closed the path but vessel workers demanded it be kept open. Hours earlier, the workers threatened a strike.
Bangladesh has come in for severe criticism for its less-than-impressive efforts to tackle the disaster in the forest that has been a world heritage site since 1997 and much of whose wildlife is unique to the region.
The Ghashiakhali channel, used as India-Bangladesh water protocol route and maritime communication route, was closed nearly three years ago after Mongla’s Nala River and Rampal’s Kumar River filled up.
The government argued that the alternate Shela route had to be reopened for the sake of uninterrupted shipment of fertiliser and raw materials for factories, protect the workers’ livelihood, and save the Mongla Port.
Promising to prioritise protection of the Sundarbans and its wildlife, it said vessels will not be allowed to ply on the route at night, amid dense fog, and stormy weather.
The inter-ministerial committee pushed authorities to finish dredging up the Mongla-Ghashiakhli channel by June.
The coastguard will manage traffic on the Shela River route and check vessels fitness. The BIWTA, forest division, Mongla Port authorities and shipping department will assist them.
Sea-going ships cannot use the route. The committee also decided to procure equipment to tackle such disaster in future.
A UN team of experts suggested closing Sundarbans rivers to commercial traffic after a joint inspection last month.
Environmentalists fear the oil spill would critically endanger the forest’s fragile ecology in the long-term.
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