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Oil Spill and Fire Threatens Dibru Saikhowa National Park & Maguri Wetland

Text by Udayan Borthakur

Photo & video copyright to Individual contributors

Photo © Diganta Rajkhowa

The Incidence

On 9th June 2020 afternoon, one of the oil rigs at well number 5 of the Baghjan area in Tinsukia District, Assam bursts into fire, thereafter spreading horizontally to nearby human habitation and ecologically sensitive surroundings. The fire incident occurred on the fourteenth days of a massive oil and gas blowout that started on 27th of May.

Photo © Niranjan Nayak

Oil Spill to nearby area risks the horizontal spread of fire

People have been fleeing from the nearby areas and taking shelter at kilometers away from the site. Authorities have evacuated hundreds of families from the affected area. While the damage to property is yet to be accessed, the entire attention is now on containment of the fire and prevent further spread. Meanwhile, thousands of people have been affected and many of them have lost their homes to the fire.

Photo © Niranjan Nayak

People moving away from their home to take safe shelter

Adjacent Dibru Saikhowa National Park is now under severe threat and extensive damage has already been caused to Maguri Motapong wetland which is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and an emerging ecotourism destination in Eastern Assam. The damage caused to the grassland and wetland habitat of Maguri area due to the oil spill seems irreversible and shall have a long term impact on biodiversity of the area.

Photo © Binanda Hatibarua

Oil Spills to the wetland and grassland area of Maguri

There has been reports of extensive damage to flora and fauna of the area, with evidences of death of Endangered Ganges river dolphin, several other mammals, birds and aquatic fauna.

Photo © Binanda Hatibarua

Damage to wildlife of the area is extensive. Photo shows dead parti-coloured flying squirrel and Ganges river dolphin at the site.

So far, Oil India Limited has totally failed to prevent the oil spill and the fire incidence. Three experts from Singaporean Firm Alert Disaster Control who joined OIL team were at the blowout site when the fire incidence occurred. According to OIL sources, four weeks may be required for fully capping the well, while they are not sure how it might have caught fire.

Meanwhile firefighters have rushed to the site and efforts are on to extinguish the fire and prevent further spread. Indian Air Force have also been called in to get control of the fire situation.

Video by Niranjan Nayak

Visuals from the site on 9 June 2020

Since 27th May, oil spillage has spread to a sizable area as large as 5 km from the well site and now there is a layer of oil on vegetation as well as on water surface kilometres away. Locals fear that the oil deposits on surface can catch fire any time now.

Photo © Diganta Rajkhowa

Local residents watch helplessly while their homes catch fire and croplands gets destroyed by oil spills.

Dibru Saikhowa National Park is on the North, about a kilometer away and being separated by a narrow stretch of river, while Maguri Beel lies on the South of the site.

Photo © Diganta Rajkhowa

Night view of the fire from Maguri on 9 June 2020

A Biodiversity Hotspot at Risk

Dibru Saikhowa, which is a National Park as well as Biospehere Reserve, contains a core National Park area of 340 sq km, while the Biosphere Reserve spreads across an area of 765 sq km. The Park lies between river Brahmaputra and Lohit in the North and Dibru in the South.

Photo © Udayan Borthakur

A view of Dibru Saikhowa National Park

The park contains a variety of forest types, including deciduous, semi-evergreen to wet evergreen patches, salix swamps to riverine grasslands, hosting a variety of wildlife species. There are reports of 36 mammal species, including Royal Bengal Tiger, Sloth Bear, Chinese pangolin, Asian elephants, Asian water buffalo, Gangetic river dolphin and feral horses. The area has reports of more than 440 species of birds, with some of the globally threatened species such as White-winged Wood Duck, Bengal Florican, Slender-billed Vulture, White-backed Vulture, White-bellied Heron, Black-breasted Parrotbill, Jerdon’s Babbler etc.

Photo © Udayan Borthakur

An Endangered Ganges river dolphin photographed in Dibru Saikhowa in 2012, not very far from the oil site of Baghjan.

Maguri on the other hand is a large wetland located to the South of Dibru Saikhowa and connected to river Dibru by a narrow channel of water. The wetland, including the adjacent grassland is famous for the presence of nearly 300 species of birds.

Photo © Udayan Borthakur

Maguri wetlands in its prime. Photo taken in the year 2016.

The site is very popular amongst birdwatchers and photographers and every year Maguri receives a number of national and international tourists visiting the area particularly for birds. Tourists normally visit the wetland by boat, particularly in the winter season to observe thousands of migratory birds visiting the area. There have been several ecotourism ventures that has started growing in past few years, providing livelihood to the locals.

Photo © Udayan Borthakur

Bird-based tourism in Maguri wetlands

Apart from ecotourism, fishing by locals is a major means of livelihood for people living near Maguri.

Photo © Udayan Borthakur

Fishing practices by locals in Maguri wetlands

The Lesson Not Learnt

Just a few days before the Baghjan explosion, OIL has received environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Govt. of India for extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at 7 more locations under Dibru-Saikhowa National Park Area. North- West of Baghjan under Tinsukia District. Some of these locations are less than a kilometre away from the boundary of Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

As per Schedule I - Standards for Emission or Discharge of Environmental Pollutants from Oil Drilling and Gas Extraction Industry of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), environmental pollutants from oil drilling are dischargedinto a nearby natural drainage channel. This is likely to harm the National Park and Maguri wetlands further, as the ecology of these sites is entirely wetland dependent. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of December 2018 by ERM India Pvt. Ltd. mentions about pollution sources and expresses concerns on the possibility of noise pollution to be a reason of fauna, particularly birds moving away from the project site temporarily. The clearance to extension of drilling has been given on 11th of May 2020. Some of the conditions laid by the Ministry while granting environmental clearance include ensuring zero liquid discharge, no wasted/ treated water discharge to any surface of water body, arrangements for controlling noise from drilling activity, preparation of oil spillage and mitigation scheme, necessary measures to prevent fire hazards etc.

The extension work is subject to further clearance under Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, Ensuring compliance under ‘National Emission Standards’ as per rules and regulations of Central and State Pollution Control Boards. The Project also require a site specific conservation plan and wildlife management plan to be implemented in consultation with State Forest Department. Oil India is also bound to improve the socio-economic condition of the surrounding area, undertake eco-developmental measures, as per the previsions of the central clearance.

Photo © Binanda Hatibarua

View of the site on 10 June 2020 morning

Into a Gloomy Future

Now the question is whether Oil India will continue with the drilling extension project in Dibru-Saikhowa area, particularly after the Baghjan incident and put human lives and the environment of this ecologically sensitive as well as productive area in danger? Should they be allowed to continue by the authorities, without a thorough investigation on the adherence of precautionary standards that were laid under such permissions and clearances?

No matter what the answer is, it is now imperative that the damage that has already been caused to property, livelihood security and ecology within the eco-sensitive zone of a National Park is irreversible and any amount of monetary compensation cannot bring back the lost biodiversity of Dibru Saikhowa and Maguri wetlands, lost connection of people to their homes and sources of livelihood that also defines their identity.

Photo © Diganta Rajkhowa

A kid from the nearby village whose home a well as future is under threat

About the Author:

Udayan Borthakur is a wildlife biologist, nature photographer and filmmaker currently working with Aaranyak and having 15 years of experience of working in India and abroad. He is the founder Chief Editor of ecoNE.

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