When Dhaka Tribune published the photograph of a dead dolphin on December 14, five days after the tanker capsized in Sela River, environmentalists and scientists were already warning that the sensitive and rare Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins – to which the place is a sanctuary – were going to be the biggest victims of the oil spill.
I took the photograph a couple of days before that, on December 12, when I covered an 80km expanse – at least 12km upstream towards the Mongla Port and more than 50km downstream towards the sea from the place of the capsize – inside the deep forest on ship, boat, and speedboat. During the voyage, I came across scores of marine birds, such as the kingfisher and egret, struggling in the oil slick, and had not seen a single mud-skipper on the riverbank.
The photograph was taken with my Canon Mark IV camera; the original file was too big for the feeble Internet in the area, so I had to travel another 25km to reach a place where locals said the Internet was better. There too it took me two-and-a-half hours to send a scaled-down 80kb photograph to our Dhaka office.
So, when the photograph was taken, nobody knew for certain the kind of toll the oil spill and spread were going to take on the delicate wildlife of the Sundarbans. As soon as I saw the dead and slightly discoloured corpse of the Irrawaddy dolphin floating in the Sela River, at a place somewhere between Tambulbunia and Harintana, my first instinct was to let the world know about it, especially the authorities who had, by then, done virtually nothing to tackle the situation. It could easily have been the first of a myriad of dead dolphins.
By then, three days had already passed since the tanker sank, and the authorities did not have any clue (not that they have any clue now either) about how to clean up the more than 350,000 litres of furnace oil that spilled from the tanker. The environment, especially the vegetation and soil on the riverbank, absolutely crucial for the local ecological balance, was turned pitch black by the oil.
During the first few days, the thick, semi-solid chunks of furnace oil were very much visible on the water. But by December 14, the mangrove environment had already experienced at least 20 high and low tides in five days. The oil – which does not dissolve in water – had by then travelled to some of the deepest parts of the forest with high tide and had conveniently settled on the vegetation – especially the breathing roots of plants – as water receded with the low tide from beneath.
Therefore, if someone went to the area on December 14, and did not find much oil on the water, it is only very normal because by then, much of the oil, being driven by the forces of high and low tides, had either settled on the vegetation and soil or been washed away, towards the sea.
Immediacy is an integral part of news coverage. I was already two days late when I went to the Sundarbans on December 11, and there were only three other journalists alongside me. Therefore, someone who went there on December 14 has totally missed out on the immediacy part of the Sundarbans oil spill coverage.
I have been in environmental journalism for two decades. Over the last 17 years, I have been to the biggest mangrove forest in the world at least twice every year. Apart from my love for, and a sense of responsibility towards, nature, the sheer enigma of the forest has drawn me towards it time and again.
With all that in my luggage, I, and also people with the slightest of knowledge about environmental journalism, can say with conviction that a disaster in the forest is nothing like the blast from an atomic bomb or even a deadly cyclone, where one would see hundreds and thousands of animals lying dead all over the place.
I have talked to many environmentalists and scientists, whom I know because I have been working in this field for so many years. They have all told me that the oil’s biggest blow to the forest will be made apparent when regeneration gets affected. The Sundarbans is a mangrove forest, where wind, water, and soil all play indispensable roles in the regeneration of the vegetation which essentially construct the forest’s ecology.
Experts also said that even if tiny plankton die because of the oil, the entire food chain of the forest may collapse. Greater adjutant and masked-finfoot and otter – all critically endangered – and egret and mud-skippers are only some members of the fauna which depend heavily on the topsoil and mud on the riverbanks, which has already been “visibly” polluted by the oil. If they do not find food in the oil slick, they will starve, because they do not know how to find food inside the forest.
The water and soil have already been badly affected by the hundreds of thousands of litres of furnace oil. That much is visible even to the eyes of those who do not have the experience or the knowledge for being able to fathom the graveness of the disaster, which is already very much happening in the Sundarbans, and are waiting to see hundreds of dead animals and fish lying around everywhere to call it a catastrophe.
An environmental disaster in the forest is a slow process, and the impacts would take time to be made visible. Let me assure you of one thing, when it does become visible, the authorities, and also those who believe that what is happening in the Sundarbans is an “unethical” media hype, will have very little they can do to protect the natural shield of Bangladesh.
This article was co-authored by Rajib Bhowmick, Senior Sub-Editor at the Dhaka Tribune.