On December 9, a tanker with 75,000 gallons of oil collided with another vessel in the Sundarbans forest in Bangladesh. The ecosystem is the world’s “largest stand of mangrove forests.” Endangered species and a “million forest people” consider the forest home. However, the only people cleaning up the oil are fishermen and children as young as ten years old.
“Local children and youngsters begun [sic] removing the already spilled oil from the Shela River using kitchen utensils like bowls, plates, and other cooking pots,” said Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, a professor at Dhaka University. “They are doing it bare-handed without any protective gear. The local administration has declared cash incentive for the oil collectors. They have now opened three-four collection centers to purchase the furnace oil from them at the rate of BDT 30 ($0.38 US dollars) per litre.”
A team from Quartz traveled to the devastated area fourteen days after the spill. They witnessed people “knee deep” in oil:
They were scraping black, viscous goo from sedges, reeds, leaves, trunks and roots. Each painstaking handful of black pulp collected was smeared off along the rim of a cooking pot. Then, they turned back to the plants for more.
Children, mostly aged between 10 years and 16 years, were covered in black from toe to waist.
The adults only use sponges and shovels to clean up oil, while fisherman use fishnets to keep oil out of the canals. Authorities do not own the proper equipment to clean up an oil spill of this magnitude.
“We’ve not started any major clean-up efforts yet,” said chief forest official Amir Hossain. “In fact, the forest department doesn’t have the technology to deal with this kind of disaster.”
But Khan believes the authorities should have done more to prevent more oil spillage, instead of arguing who should clean up the mess:
He added that these authorities “absolutely did nothing other than watching oil consistently getting dispersed all around! A privately hired small vessel salvaged the sunken ship after two days of the oil spill in the Shela River! It could have been done immediately after the incident. The concerned authorities do not have even a single equipment to tackle such an oil spill.”
The ones who do collect and burn plants to loosen oil do everything without protective gear. The men return home covered in fumes and oil, which can cause serious illness. Quartz reports children in Joymoni, Bangladesh, are getting sick.
The United Nations and Bangladesh officials received severe backlash for slow responses to the oil spill due to the fragile ecosystem. The UN sent people to the site ten days after the spill, even though UNESCO listed the Sundarbans as a World Heritage Site. It is home to the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, Ganges river dolphins, and the rare swimming Bengals. Those Bengals are the only ones remaining in the world.
The spill also provides environmentalists with fuel to pressure Bangladesh not to build coal plants near the forest. These people claim that “toxic coal spills will become likely in the future, as well as air pollution and water shortages due to demand from the plants.”