The Bangladesh government has lifted a shipping ban in the Sundarbans, a major sanctuary for the endangered Irrawaddy and Ganga dolphins and UNESCO world heritage site, defying the recommendations of UN experts.

A shipping ban was imposed after an oil tanker capsized in early December last year, spilling 350,000 litres of furnace oil into the Shela River, threatening the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem.

Since then activity at Mongla port, a major trading hub on the Bay of Bengal, has stalled, leaving around 500 vessels stranded at both ends of the Shela river route and vessel owners demanding the government reopen the route.

Since the main shipping route between Mongla and Ghoshiakhali collapsed due to heavy siltation in 2011, vessels have been using alternative routes through restricted forest areas to save time and costs.

A UN-Bangladesh joint team of experts recently visited area and recommended the government suspends shipping through the Sundarbans.

“The shipping of oil through a sensitive environment presents a serious risk to both the environment and the communities that depend on it for their livelihoods,” said Emilia Wahlstrom from the UN inspection team.

The UN experts also recommended the government set up long term monitoring system to assess the impact of the oil spill on the forest. While the recent spill appears not to have affected the health of dolphins in the short term, experts warn problems will emerge in the long term. Local conservationists are already reporting a significant decline in fish and crabs in affected areas, which the dolphins depend on for food.

Large vessels plying the sensitive channels will cause environmental damage in the area from pollution and riverbank erosion, the Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS), an independent research body under the Ministry of Water Resources, has also warned.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests declared the area a dolphin sanctuary in 2011.  The same year, the shipping ministry allowed ships to cross the Sundarbans under a trade agreement with India, as the original route to Mongla port from Ghasiakhali became unpassable due to heavy siltation.

Following the accident, the Bangladesh government announced it will finish dredging the Mongla-Ghashiakhali channel by June, but so far only 8% of the work has been completed and experts are sceptical this can be achieved by the summer.

Around 10,000 commercial vessels ply on the Shela River every year.

The government defended its decision in a recent press statement, arguing the country’s agriculture, industry and livelihoods of water transport workers depend on the shipping channel.  The government ban remains for oil tankers and for all vessels during foggy and rough weather.

Ship owners and other businesses are facing huge losses as the supply of raw materials has been  suspended.

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