Pollution of the marine environment in and around Saint Martin’s Island in Cox’s Bazar, the only coral-reef island of Bangladesh and an Ecologically Critical Area, continues unabated as the government has failed to put in place an appropriate management mechanism for the protection of the island.
Green activists and researchers said that though the biodiversity-rich island in the Bay of Bengal was declared an Ecologically Critical Area in 1999, the authorities were yet to take any pragmatic step for its management, conservation and restoration of the island.
An average of over 4,000 tourists stay overnight in the 8-square kilometre island daily along with its 10,000 permanent residents, greens pointed out, as the government could not implement its plan to keep the tourist number within 1,250 each day in the once eye-catching island that is home to several species of globally threatened marine turtles and birds.
Researchers said that the eco-system and the biodiversity of the vulnerable island and its marine environment faced a serious threat due to the construction of unplanned structures there demolishing habitats of marine lives.
According to locals, the silent island, locally known as Narikel Jinjira, was declared an ECA when it started seeing sudden spikes in the number of tourists as the site became popular after its publicity in films and other media in the 90s.
To cater to the increasing number of tourists nearly 150 multi-storeyed resorts, including Atlantic Resort, Blue Marine Resorts, Abakash, Fantasy Hotel and Resort, and CTB Resort with five floors were built after 2000 in violation of the restrictions but the Department of Environment did not take any effective step against such violation.
Chairman of Saint Martin’s Island union parishad Nur Ahmed said that except 18 small structures all the residential hotels were built on the island by outsiders violating the relevant rules and laws.
‘When I opposed any illegal construction, high officials and leaders created pressure,’ he said.
After the island has been declared an ECA, the DoE clearance is mandatory for any construction but illegal structures have been built over the years and are still being built, he said.
On October 24, 2011, the High Court ordered government agencies to conduct a survey within 60 days to identify the illegal buildings and demolish them following a writ petition filed by Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association in 2009.
BELA conducted a survey in 2017 and found 104 hotels and restaurants operating in the island, which the DoE certified as illegal.
BELA chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan resented that instead of evicting the unauthorised constructions, new structures were raised not only by private entities but even by law enforcement agencies.
‘Due to such non-stop grabbing and reckless use of lands, the highly fragile and sensitive island eco-system faces risks of extinction,’ she said.
Founding director of the International Centre for Ocean Governance and also the dean of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Faculty of Dhaka University Professor Kawser Ahmed quoting his recent study said that coral species were disappearing fast in the island.
He said that while 141,127 and 65 coral species existed in1980, 1990 and 1997 respectively in the island there were only 41 in 2016.
He predicted that the number of coral species would come down to 24 by 2030 and they would completely disappear by 2045.
According to greens, not only coral reefs but other marine lives, including highly rare Pacific reef-egret, red crab, dolphin and vulnerable olive ridley turtles, are also on the verge of disappearance.
DoE director and also project director of Ecosystem-based Development, Management and Conservation of the Saint Martin’s Island Mohmmed Solaiman Haider admitted the degradation, adding that they have imposed 14-point restrictions for the protection of the island.
‘The government has now taken a hard line for punishing the polluters,’ he said and added that the DoE was conducting a massive awareness programme to this end.
As part of the programme, the environment department warns tourists against riding motorised vehicles with lights and high sounds along the island beaches, throwing plastics and entering the restricted areas by threatening with legal actions.
Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute’s scientific officer Mir Kashem said that corals could not survive in muddy water which sunlight could not pass through.
Cox’s Bazar-based voluntary organisation Save the Nature Bangladesh founding chairman Moazzem Riad said that they frequently found dead turtles along the Saint Martin’s beach with injury marks from fishing nets and propellers of ships and boats.
‘Every day over 200 water vessels run by the small island endangering turtles and other sea lives,’ he said.
Greens said that wastewater, petrol and solid wastes, particularly hazardous plastics, were haphazardly thrown into the sea from vessels which also made the water muddy. They are also anchored on corals during the low tides harming coral lives.
To protect marine animals, the government last week tried to impose restrictions on motorised vehicle movement in a restricted area but local tour operators protested.
According to academics, crabs and turtles breed and take rest under low water and on the sandy beach and these are sensitive animals which cannot stand high sound and lights while irresponsible tourists produce such things frequently.
‘Due to habitat damages and disturbances caused by tourists, sea animals migrate to other places,’ said Shahriar Hossain, general secretary of Environment and Social Development Organisation.
He said that huge numbers of tourists polluted the sea beach by dumping plastic and polythene materials, banned in Bangladesh, for lack of monitoring.
Some 73,000 tonnes of plastic wastes thrown annually along the Padma, Jamuna and Meghna river-lines, the second most plastic-polluted waterway in the world, too, he suspects, end up in the sea, spreading to the deep as far as Saint Martin’s Island waters.
Voluntary organisationTourist Haven Bangladesh chairman Jahangir Khan Babu said that many tourists violated legal restrictions due to poor monitoring by the authorities.
He said that many businessmen illegally constructed hotels and resorts destroying coral concentrations.
Saint Martin’s Island union parishad officials said that they had no sewage and solid waste management system in place but thousands of tourists generated tonnes of additional wastes there.
All types of waste, including plastic, medical, electronic and kitchen waste along with faecal sludge, litter the overcrowded island nowadays, they said.
According to Bangladesh Tourism Board deputy director Mohammad Saiful Hassan, three committees are working to reduce the number of tourists in the island but it is difficult to implement any plan there as many government departments are involved in it.
He appealed that tourists should follow the government directives to ensure the survival of the island, once full of coconut trees, for the future generations.
According to Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh president Md Rafeuzzaman, if the government can implement a good management system, then the number of tourists would not be much of a problem for the environment.
He too mentioned that government agencies had also erected brick structures in the island.
The government should allow a ‘considerable’ number of tourists there so that tour operators do not become losers, he viewed.
Dewan Eman, a tourist who has recently gone to St Martin’s for the first time from his home at Savar in Dhaka, said that he had heard fascinating stories about the island but it looked like a ‘desert slum’ to him.
‘I couldn’t imagine that I might see open defecation in the island. I will never visit the island again,’ he said with frustration.
He said that he had not found red crabs or turtles for which he was eager to visit the island.
Local fishermen said that they were not getting fishes in remote parts of the bay where they used to net vast quantities of fish only five years ago.
Many fishermen have therefore been compelled to switch to driving and trading, they said.
Habibur Rahman, a resident of Saint Martin’s Island, said that at the end of 1980 there were only two hotels, not multi-storeyed, in the island but the number reached 10-12 in the 90s and which in 2000 stood at over 50, adding that over 150 hotels are there in the island now.
St Martin’s Island is one of the main tourist destinations of the country, not much away from the Cox’s Bazar beach, the longest natural sandy sea beach in the world running 150 kilometres.
In March 2019, the government decided to contain the tourist rush to the island, the farthest south-eastern point of Bangladesh, during the peak season of December–March.
But neither an effective measure nor any fruitful management was installed in this regard, said greens.
DoE director Solaiman Haider said that the Bangladesh Cost Guard was asked by a secretary-level committee to enforce the 14-point restrictions and other steps to protect the island.
Coast Guard media officer Amirul Haque, however, said that they were not asked to contain the number of tourists or illegal structures but to check high sound, lighting and travelling to the Chhera Dwip strip in vehicles.
Officials said that the island, which had once 154 species of marine algae, 157 species of aquatic plant, 68 species of coral, 157–191 species of snail, 240 species of fish and 120 species of bird, 4 species of amphibious creature and 29 species of serpentine, had meanwhile lost many of the species.
Tourism business insiders said that if the island could not be protected, Bangladesh’s tourism would bear the brunt.
In July, 2020, tonnes of wastes, mostly plastics, were found floating along the Cox’s Bazar beach several times for reasons not known.
Several hundred green volunteers recovered over 20 dead and over 500 injured olive ridley turtles, many snakes and other marine animals entangled in plastic wastes there.
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