The Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWT&T), which was ratified in 2015, was a boost to mutual use of waterways for commerce through the nearly 50-year-old Indo-Bangla Protocol route.
The statistics on commodity-wise cargo trade under PIWT&T show that items that are shipped include coal, fly ash, food grains, and construction materials – stone chip, steel plate, steel grader, wire rod, steel coil and some others.
But fly ash takes the lion's share.
Why not? Bangladesh-based cement factories import the item from India. Also, India exports it to its eastern parts.
During the first half of the 2019-20 fiscal year, 2,268,261 tonnes of fly ash was shipped through the Indo-Bangla Protocol route, while the combined shipped amount of steel grader and stone chip was 19,730 tonnes.
According to Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) data, the amount of fly ash shipment was 1,448,562 tonnes seven years ago.
The increase shows the level of demand. The waterway access helps meet the demand for cheap ingredients of Bangladeshi cement manufacturers, and also reduces India's burden of a huge amount of fly ash – an industrial waste of thermal power plants.
However, the trade of fly ash poses a serious threat to the Sundarbans – the world's largest mangrove forest straddling the two neighbouring countries.
Green activists of the two countries have long been criticising the presence of a commercial waterway through the ecologically important area. Motorised vessels' movement disturbs wildlife. Their concern grew more because of the capsize of vessels adjacent to the forest.
Up to March in 2019-20 fiscal year, Bangladeshi and Indian vessels made 2,645 trips through the route. The number was 428 in 2001-02 fiscal year, BIWTA data show.
The increasing traffic of vessels essentially hampers their smooth navigation, resulting in higher number of accidents. The accidents pollute the water that silt the forest bed twice a day during high tide.
Between March and May, at least five barges carrying fly ash capsized along the Indo-Bangla Protocol route while crossing the Indian part of the Sundarbans. All the sunken vessels with less than 800-tonne capacity were Bangladeshi.
On April 20, Kolkata-based Dakhinbanga Fisheries Association wrote a letter to the West Bengal government, requesting a ban on plying of unfit Bangladeshi vessels in Indian waters.
The letter claims that most of the Bangladeshi barges transporting fly ash are quite old, ill-maintained, and not fit for such a long journey. Hence, they often cause accidents.
Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, state minister for shipping, refused to comment on the issue when contacted.
But BIWTA – one of the authorities concerned of the Indo-Bangla Protocol route – claims that no Bangladeshi vessel without fitness certificate is allowed to carry goods on the route.
Muhammad Rafiqul Islam, BIWTA director of marine safety and traffic management division, said none of the five recent accidents occurred due to fitness issues.
"All five capsizes were mere accidents," he said.
Currently, around 400 vessels transport goods through the route.
Rafiqul expressed relief that no accident took place along the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans recently.
No salvation endangers environment
The government officer should however remember the earlier capsizes in the Pasur and Shela channels – the lifelines of the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans.
In December 2014, an oil tanker capsized in Shela, spilling thousands of litres of fuel oil. The next year in May, a ship carrying 500 tonnes of fertiliser sank in the Bhola River in the Sundarbans.
In October the same year, a coal-laden cargo vessel carrying 510 tonnes of coal sank in the Pasur River.
The latest accident within Bangladesh territory along the Indo-Bangla Protocol route occurred on August 3 last year. A vessel carrying 900 tonnes of fly ash sank in the Raimangal River. The vessel was travelling towards Narayanganj from Haldia port of Kolkata.
No significant attempt has yet been made to salvage the sunken vessels that keep poisoning the water.
According to Mongla-based journalist Noor Alam Sheikh, also Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon's Bagerhat unit convener, there are 20-25 vessels under the Pasur River.
Usually, vessel owners recover the sunken goods using old-fashioned techniques.
"I had visited almost all the recent accident spots for reporting. I did not see any complete salvage operation. Salvaging a vessel is expensive; more than the price of the vessel," Noor said.
A 2011 Standing Order for Salvage of Sunken or Capsized Vessel makes sunken vessel owners liable for salvage operation. But they can avoid carrying out the crucial task by managing the authorities concerned.
Moreover, time passes as letters over who will take responsibility to assist in salvage operation keep circulating.
But, by that time, the environment undegoes irreparable damage.
Impacts of fly ash contamination
India's National Green Tribunal in 2016 set up a committee that assessed the environmental impacts of fly ash pollution on Ennore creek and areas surrounding North Chennai Thermal Power Station.
The study found presence of heavy metals like lead, mercury and copper at levels above the safe limit in samples of fish, crab, prawn, oyster and mussels. It also said that fly ash deposition also caused habitat loss, including reduction of mangroves.
Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, professor of environmental science at Khulna University, says there is lack of such studies on fly ash pollution in the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans.
He, however, said that the scale of danger depends on where fly ash is generated from. "In general, fly ash contains high volumes of carbon, sulfur, cadmium, lead, chromium, and in some cases, beryllium, arsenic, methane, lithium and nickel. These are, more or less, toxic materials. When they mix with water, they create other chemical compounds."
The danger of contamination is not confined within the spot of the capsize. As the Sundarbans is crisscrossed by hundreds of tidal canals and creeks, dumping of toxic materials can spread over as much forest bed as the tidal water's reach. Similarly, during ebb, the floating chemicals lay on the riverbed.
A fly ash contamination does not impact the mangroves instantly.
Professor Harun said, "In the long run, water contamination can cause physiological changes in aqua lives, like hampering their regeneration and growth. The contamination may damage the embryos and stop germination of mangroves' seed lying on the forest bed."
There is no long-term chemical test after such accident. The research requires atomic absorption spectrophotometer to measure the concentration of radioactive elements' presence in a liquid sample, which many Bangladeshi laboratories do not have.
Moreover, such research requires long-time effort, as well as expenses. But for determining the future of the Sundarbans, such research is crucial.
Professor Harun regretted that the policymakers do not calculate the ecological loss unless there is any economic loss involved.
Grounds for fly ash shipment
Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan in a conversation with this correspondent questioned the need for import of fly ash.
"Does the import policy support industrial waste like fly ash? According to international laws, export or import of industrial waste is prohibited," she said.
The country's Import Policy Order (2015-18) does not mention fly ash on the list of prohibited goods. But it says, "…unless or otherwise specified in this order, all kinds of wastes are prohibited for import."
In terms of export, Rizwana also reminded that in 2016, India's environment, forest and climate change ministry mandated 100 percent use of fly ash in brick manufacturing to reduce pressure on topsoil.
Although fly ash was declared industrial waste in the early 1990s, Bangladeshi traders, mainly cement manufacturers, import fly ash as a by-product for coal-fired power plants.
There are about 125 cement manufacturing companies in Bangladesh, and 37 of them are in operation. Annually, Bangladesh imports fly ash worth $130 million.
Bellal Hussain Mollah, executive director of Bangladesh Cement Manufacturers Association, told The Business Standard that currently a few cement factories use fly ash. "Import will not be required when the projected thermal power plants start producing the by-product."
"However, we are always concerned about safe shipment, and use the fittest vessels. That is because it is tied to investment in crores of takas," he said.
But Rizwana was still not convinced. She questioned the legality of shipping toxic materials through a Ramsar site – a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.
On May 21, 1992, part of the Sundarbans was declared a Ramsar site.
The minister for environment, forest and climate change, Shahab Uddin, did not respond despite several attempts.