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Bengali villagers make livelihood out of oil disaster


Lets get one thing straight: the world still needs oil. But what happens when we systematically employ risks that we haven’t quite mastered? Unexpected business.

On 9 December, 350 thousand litres (92.5 thousand gallons) of oil were spilled in the Sundarbans “beautiful forest”, Bangladesh. Fresh water dolphins, fish, birds and locals felt the consequences of fragile containment strategies soon after tanker Southern Star 7 was hit by a cargo vessel, along the the Shela river: a 70 km oil slick was identified. As the eyes of the world begin to turn away, Pandeia finds interesting changes in the lifestyle of locals, two months later.

At the time, Bengali authorities were up-front regarding the challenge ahead. “The catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans, and we don’t know how to tackle this”, chief forestry official for the region, Amir Hossain, told reporters. For over a week, villagers personally took upon themselves to improvise manual collection of the toxic substance with tankards, buckets and pans – but no protective gear. Other than the obvious health hazards (direct exposure to oil is related to the incidence of cancer and leukemia), the spill compromises the local food chain from the bottom up, endangering local species and life of those who bathe, wash and fish in those waters. So what can be learned from the episode?

That where necessity meets obsequiousness, new ways of making business emerge. It took 13 days before BP cleanup workers and UN-appointed experts began damage assessment for  eventual address. In an impoverished country, damage control was seen by villagers as another way to make ends meet, regardless of side effects. Collected oil has been put into empty drums and resold to Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC), a state-owned oil company. To many, this has proven itself more lucrative than fishing – pragmatically speaking, ‘solving’ two immediate issues: clean-up and livelihood. For every  litre of collected sludge, locals were promised 30 taka (US$ 0.40) as reward.

However, an important comparison is to be held: local resident Hasina Begum, 42, told Dhaka Tribune that buying questionable water from nearby villages, which are less affected by the spill, comes at a cost of 20 taka per barrel.

Words by Scheila Farias Silveira with info from Dhaka Tribune and The Daily Star

Picture by Sayamindu Dasgupta

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