The sinking of the MV Aij Gati near the Sundarbans, Bangladesh

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On January 13, 2017 the MV Aij Gati, which was carrying about 1000 tonnes of coal from South Africa, sank near the Sundarbans World Heritage area in Bangladesh. (Initial reports referred to the name of the ship as being MV Aisgati while later ones referred to its name as being MV Aij Gati. For the purposes of this article the latter spelling has been adopted.)

Prior to the sinking there had been protests around the world against the proposed Rampal coal plant, which would require 10,000 tonnes of coal to be transhipped a day through the Sundarbans.[1]

Details of the sinking

On the morning of January 13 the MV Aij Gati, carrying more than 1,000 tonnes of coal, sank in the estuary of Pashur River about 15 km downstream of Hiron Point in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest.

The site of the sinking is approximately 100km from Mongla Port. (The time of the sinking was estimated to be between 9am and 10am, with one source putting it at 9:30 am.) The ship's crew of 12 were rescued by the 'MV Bashundha-37, a ship carrying coal ash which was passing the site.[2] [3] (One source referred to the ships crew of 12 being rescued along with four "security personnel" who were also on board.)[4]

MV Aishgati was a small cargo ship which had received its load of coal from a larger moored ship incapable of navigating the shallow depths to deliver its cargo to Noarpara in Jessore. (The mothership was reported as Indonesian flagged 'MV Lady Marry' which had moored near buoy 12 at the outer anchorage of Mongla port.)[5]

The cause of the sinking was attributed to damage to the hull encountered during the transhipment of coal from the 'MV Lady Marry' to the MV Aij Gati. "The ship sank after suffering a rupture to its bottom when loading coal at Fairboya,” said Golam Faruk, the ships owner.[2]

Impacts and reactions to the sinking

There was no immediate reports of environmental damage from the sinking of the ship. However, Prof Harun ur Rashid of Environmental Science Discipline at Khulna University warned the low-quality coal imported for brick kilns contained heavy metals and while not knowing the exact details of the shipment said he believed it "certainly it is going to be harmful to the Sundarbans and its species."[6]

Others argued the sinking - the fourth commercial ship and the third carrying coal to sink in and near the Sundarbans in the last couple of years - should ring alarm bells about the impacts from the proposed Rampal coal plant which is currently under construction. The proposed plant would require an estimated 10,000 tonnes of coal a day to be transported up the Pasur River after being offloaded from 80,000 tonne motherships moored at Akram Point.

"If the authorities want to transport coal for the operation of Rampal power plant, the way it is being done now, it would be disastrous for the Sundarbans," said Zahir Uddin, conservator of the forest, Khulna division told the Daily Star.[6]

Professor Anu Muhammad from the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, "Not only the Rampal power plant, the government should stop all sorts of commercial activities in the Sundarbans."

In an editorial, the Daily Star wrote:

"The idea of a coal-based power plant so close to the Sundarbans is fraught with danger, and our stand on the issue is not in consonance with the government's. We have to remember that while the Rampal plant may use higher grade coal, the project will require 10,000 tonnes of coal on a daily basis. This quantity will require a lot of vessels to operate along the Pasur, through the forest every day. These are ground realities and it is high time the authorities woke up to the possibilities, among other things, of accidents, and accidents can happen, and their effects on the Sundarbans. After all, we have only one of its kind."[7]

Salvage operation

It was reported the Mongla's Harbour Master, Commander Md Oliullah, has requested the coal importer, Noahparha Traders in Jessore, to start operations to salvage the sunken ship. "It's on the west side of the fairway. It's not creating any problem for other vessels, but we have told them to remove it." The importer has requested a salvage company in Chittagong to retreive the ship, whoch is estimated to lie in water which is over 100 metres deep water.[8]

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