Barges transporting fly ash from India to Bangladesh erode the Sundarbans: Bengali minister

Barges sailing into neighboring Bangladesh via the vulnerable Sundarban Islands are triggering erosion on riverbanks, West Bengal Disaster Management Minister Javed Khan claimed at a recent meeting in Kolkata.

The claims have been refuted by officials from the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), the central government agency responsible for vessels moving across borders on waterways. However, officials and experts from the state Ministry of Irrigation supported Khan’s allegations.

About 40 barges regularly sail along the Indian Sundarbans, transporting fly ash from Indian thermal power plants to Bangladesh, where it is used as a raw material for cement production.

The Sundarbans are made up of around 100 islands, split almost evenly between human habitats and wild islands. These have been identified as climate hotspots. Due to rapid sea level rise and tidal fluctuations, the islands are already being eroded.

The minister claimed that the waves created by the continuous movement of barges on the National Waterways-97, which includes 14 sections through the Sundarbans, compounded the problem.

Khan said he recently visited the area to take a closer look at the situation and plans to raise the matter with central government authorities.

“Local people and officials told us that the continuous movement of barges transporting fly ash from West Bengal to Bangladesh is affecting banks and triggering erosion,” Khan said at a recent workshop at the Kolkata Press Club on disaster and climate risk communication.

Residents claimed erosion had increased significantly since barges began sailing near the inhabited islands of the Sundarbans about a decade ago.

“These barges are triggering the severe erosion on the riverbanks,” a local on Pakhiralay island said on July 16, 2023, pointing to a barge passing near the riverbank that is rapidly eroding.

Previously, the barges navigated channels closer to the core forest. After complaints that they were damaging pristine mangrove and wildlife habitat, particularly by releasing toxic runoff, they changed their route.

“On average, about 40 barges pass through the Sundarbans every day, mostly transporting fly ash from India to Bangladesh. We have no evidence that the waves generated by these barges affect shores or cause erosion,” said Arvind Kumar, Director of the IWAI.

A senior IWAI official said the waves generated by barges only affect water levels to a depth of 0.5 meters, which further decreases as the waves approach shore.

“Erosion typically occurs at a depth of 3 to 4 meters. The waves generated by the barges play no part in shore erosion; They usually move around 200 meters from shore,” the official added.

Senior officials from IWAI and Kolkata Port Trust claimed regular tidal waves and fluctuations, as well as high winds and rising sea levels, had damaged riverbanks.

If shipping were to blame, there would be no erosion on the riverbanks near places of no movement. “However, we are noticing erosion at many of these sites,” an official said.

However, a Sunderbans expert disagreed. “According to the protocol, the ships’ route passes through Sagar, Namkhana, Pathar Pratima and Gosaba areas before reaching Bangladesh. Most of the islands on this route are at risk of erosion,” he said.

The high business value of fly ash transportation overshadows erosion problems, he further claimed.

“A whopping 97 percent of all cargo carried on the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol route consists of fly ash,” pointed out a researcher from Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a water and energy policy think tank.

A 2019–20 IWAI report showed that fly ash transport accounts for 10 percent of traffic on all national waterways.

sludge affected

A senior official with the state irrigation agency claimed barges disrupted the process of silting up riverbanks — dirt, soil or sediment carried and deposited by the water.

“The barges sail near the inhabited islands in the Sundarbans because that is where the deep channels are. We don’t know the magnitude of the direct impacts, but they impede siltation by often disturbing the watercourse, which encourages erosion,” the official said.

The damage increases when shipping channels are dredged, he claimed.

“These vessels, especially the larger ones, affect the shores and cause erosion,” said Sugata Hazra, a Sunderbans expert from Jadavpur University’s oceanography department.

Tidal effects are generally greatest at a depth of 0.5 meters, opening up the possibility that tidal peaks and barge-generated waves can reinforce each other and cause maximum damage, he said.

Hazra gave the example of Ghoramara Island to the west of Sunderbans, one of the region’s sinking islands. “Previously the west side of Ghoramara was eroded as the barges passed it. Now ships are sailing along the north and east sides of the island and these areas are eroding,” the expert said.

Sanjib Sagar, former Ghoramara Panchayat Pradhan, told this reporter, “In our experience from the ground, these Bangladeshi ships are definitely playing a key role in the erosion of our island.”

The ships rarely have Indian pilots for Indian waters, which is mandatory, and therefore face navigational problems, Hazra said. “The barges often get too close to the banks and affect erosion,” he said.

Fishermen in the area confirmed this and complained that the barges damaged their fishing nets.

“We have lodged complaints with the district judge and the Kolkata Port Trust in 2022 and this year that the barges damaged fishing nets, but the problem persists,” Milan Das, secretary of a fisheries association, Dakshinbanga Motsojibi Forum (DMF), told this reporter.

Earlier, in response to a petition from the DMF, the National Green Tribunal had called for an alternative route through the Bay of Bengal for the Bangladeshi barges.

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