Another battle between environmental conservation and economic growth is unfolding along the shores of the small South Asian nation of Bangladesh. In one corner stands Sonadia Island, a pristine 11km-long island roughly three and a half km from the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar. In the opposing corner stand the Bangladeshi per capita GDP of $1,420 (World Bank 2009), and a government plan to develop a deep sea port to facilitate trade and boost the economy. Fortunately, as SWOT Team members at Bangladesh’s MarineLife Alliance are quick to point out, there is a solution; but what will it take to see it through?
Sonadia Island is an oasis of uninhabited beaches, mudflats, dunes and mangrove forests for at least 11 threatened species, including two sea turtle species: olive ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas). The island’s landscape remains untouched and unvisited by tourists, a rarity along Bangladesh’s coast. It’s a relatively wild place that’s home to more than 70 species of migratory birds—including the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus)—79 species of fish, 11 amphibians, three marine mammals, two species of sea turtles and a great number of mollusks and crustaceans. Given its ecological importance, it was declared an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) in 1999 under the Environmental Act of 1995.
MarineLife Alliance has been involved in conservation on the island since 2001, and in March of 2010, the Alliance launched the first ever turtle satellite track in Bangladesh, releasing an olive ridley from Sonadia Island equipped with a satellite tag. Their expertise in the region and other areas throughout the bay has qualified them to participate in panel discussions during the annual Sea Turtle Symposium. Thanks to them, Bangladeshi marine life has a voice in the conservation community.
Bangladesh’s economy has withstood steady growth since 1996, yet its per-capita GDP remains in the bottom 20 percent of all nations. Exports, particularly garments and manpower, represent a major source of foreign income. A new port would facilitate exports of national products and perhaps set the stage for further economic growth. But more so, the port would facilitate trade by neighboring countries such as India, Nepal, and China, and Bangladesh would benefit by renting the port facility for their needs. The government’s proposed port would have 58 piers, be 11 kilometers long and cost the government in excess of $8.6 billion, according to the Japanese consultancy firm Pacific Consultant International (PCI). The government hopes to fund much of the project through international donations. The port would be located on the north central part of the island on a network of canals connecting to the Bay of Bengal, where there are currently mudflats and mangrove forests (one of only two areas of remaining mangrove forest in Bangladesh).
Fortunately, Sonadia Island is not the only island in the area, and a second island was selected as an alternative site to build the port. Kutubdia Island is roughly 20 km north of Sonadia and is less important in terms of biodiversity preservation. Kutubdia is surrounded by water deep enough to house a port and, like Sonadia, is an open area that is separated from the mainland by the 1.7 km-wide (1 mile) Kutubdia channel, providing easier access to the mainland and the future Asian Highway.
According to MarineLife Alliance, building on the alternative site is unfortunately not on the Bangladeshi government’s radar of options, possibly due to interference by local leaders and politicians who may benefit from business opportunities that the port would bring. MarineLife Alliance is also concerned that there has not been a transparent Environmental Impact Assessment, that the public is not being properly informed of the port’s progress and potential impacts, and that those with financial interests in the port are attempting to downplay Sonadia Island’s biodiversity importance.
With so much at stake, it is important to find a solution that addresses the need for economic development and environmental conservation. In the case of the proposed Sonadia Port, would the switch to Kububdia, or to one of the other ten suitable port sites identified by PCI help alleviate some of these tensions? Would it in fact be a better choice? From a SWOT Team member’s point of view, the answer is unequivocally ‘yes’.