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India Polluted the Sunderbans With 8 Toxic Waste Spills in 2018‑20: Report

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Oct 27, 2020

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Image credit: Garth Cripps

A new report by Mongabay highlights the danger posed to the Sunderbans delta by India’s export of fly ash to Bangladesh: Eight shipments of fly ash have capsized in the Sunderbans delta over the past two years.

Five of those shipwrecks happened in 2020 itself. These accidents harmed aquatic life and disrupted fishing, poisoned agricultural land and drinking water, and decimated related livelihoods at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra.

Fly ash is a byproduct of coal-burning power plants made toxic by its lead, uranium, and arsenic content. India exports three million tons of fly ash to Bangladesh each year, and 97% of waterway traffic between both countries is for fly ash transport. In May, India signed a treaty to open up more waterways for trade between the two countries. If current trends prevail, and the majority of transport along these waterways remains fly ash, pollution will only worsen.

“Fly ash is a very dangerous substance that should not be transported anywhere. Any kind of spill can be lethal for the environment,” Shweta Narayan, coordinator of clean energy alliance Healthy Energy Initiative, told Mongabay. “No amount of checks and balances will stop the spillage of this highly toxic material. We don’t even know what kind of lasting impact it will have. The aquatic ecosystem might get permanently damaged because of these types of toxic chemicals.”


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The Sunderbans are of immense ecological value due to its diverse flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Irawadi dolphins, estuarine crocodiles, and the critically endangered endemic river terrapin. Fly ash pollution poses a threat to both endangered species and the people who live near the delta and depend on it for their livelihood.

India’s increasing reliance on coal power has led to the production of large quantities of fly ash that lawmakers haven’t figured out how to dispose of. Since fly ash can be used as a substitute for cement while making bricks, Bangladesh-based cement factories import it from India. India’s legal classification of fly ash as waste material, rather than as hazardous waste material, enables the trade. Incidents like shipwrecks and ash spills, and the threat they pose to the Sunderbans demand a change in how the Indian government regulates the transport of toxic substances like fly ash.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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