By Susmita Abani:
When holders of powerful positions throughout the world turn a blind eye on matters of our ailing environment, blinkered towards nothing but business interests, it never fails to baffle me. Each environmental tragedy serves as a crystal ball into the future of our planet, and yet as a whole our society often remains inert to what they prophesy.
The persistent denial by politicians or businessmen of the damages incurred; companies held accountable for shaky safety precautions; and imposed clean-up efforts that are either risky or inefficient – these have become hallmarks of disastrous oil spills in recent times. Whether it be the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010, or the latest tanker accident in the Sundarbans, a pattern of response from authorities are predictable in both developing and developed nations.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Sunderbans National Park became tainted with the stains of an oil-tanker spill in Shela River on December 9th. 350,000 litres of furnace oil discharged into the river following a collision between the tanker and a cargo boat, forming a menacing black slick that has spread over 350 square kilometres to the shorelines, adjacent rivers and canals. The oil now threatens the local flora, plankton, crustacean and small fish populations in one of Sunderbans’ three sanctuaries that house rare species of Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins.
Authorities instructed villagers and fishermen to battle the spread using sponges and pans, a feeble endeavour that’s been hammered by experts. Unsurprisingly, the tanker was old and unsuitable for transporting oil. The UN is rightly pushing for a ban on future passages of commercial vessels through the park, reversing the government’s removal of these restrictions in 2011.
The Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, as well as the Minister of Forestry and Environment, are claiming the park’s biodiversity will remain largely unharmed by the incident. Their words hauntingly echo the sad revelations from the 2010 BP tragedy where years of court hearings, settlements and deliberations concluded that “when companies report spills, they sometimes try to deceive regulatory agencies and the public into thinking their spills caused no harm to Gulf waters.” Furthermore, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill report surmised that the “well blew out because a number of separate risk factors, oversights, and outright mistakes combined. But most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure—a failure of management.”
The environmental impacts of an oil spill are numerous. Smaller wildlife is immediately smothered, depriving birds and furry animals of the ability to control body heat; ingestion of oil trigger internal bleeding and causing intestinal diseases in mammals; animals are dehydrated from the absence of clean drinking water and the list goes on. Mangroves, central to the Sunderban’s ecosystem, are susceptible to oil covering their roots, and re-growth can take decades. Disruptions to reproductive cycles and loss of habitat cause biodiversity to suffer a blow when a decline in one species populations has a domino effect along the food chains. Chronic exposure to oil can gradually poison the area’s ecological health, and the long term stagnation of commercial fishing, recreation and tourism industries can be expected.
It is understandable that accidents are often unforeseeable, but if multiple preventable factors are found to contribute, the solution can only lie with continual improvement of systems. Governments need to address their oversight of companies that drill, extract and transport oil in ticking time bombs. An industry familiar with serious accidents that not only alter our environment, but also result in human losses, require stauncher inspection and auditing regimes monitoring for every wear and tear in equipment, and the safety culture. And environmental tragedies, like human rights violations, should be responded with on all hands on deck and not left in incapable hands for days.