St. Martin's Island: An impending catastrophe ?
“The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.”
- Zeno (335 BC - 264 BC)
Md. Touhidul Imran Chowdhury
St. Martin's Island is a perfect epitome of how man's attraction to beauty can ruin it in the process. Since the beginning of this century, St. Martin's started attracting large number of researchers and tourists from all over the world. Now, it stands in the face of complete ruin unless significant steps are taken immediately.
Also known as Narikel Jinjira, St. Martin's Island is located on the southern-most tip of Bangladesh, separated by a channel of about 8 km from the mainland of Teknaf. It is the only coral rich island of Bangladesh. Covering and area of about 8 square km, with a population of over 5000 people, the island took its shape in last 100 to 125 years. Most of the inhabitants depend on fishing for their livelihood. The island has numerous species of corals, algae, mollusks and boulders. It is widely recognized as a precious natural site not only for Bangladesh, but also for the world.
Besides its panoramic beauty it is ecologically extremely important, which prompted the GoB (Government of Bangladesh) to declare the island as an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) in 1995. To have a significant and positive impact on the long-term viability of the island's biodiversity resources, the Department of Environment (DoE) initiated a management plan known as CWBMP (Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project), funded by UNDP-GEF (United Nations Development Program and Global Environment Facility).
To identify the present condition of St. Martin's Island, a group of ten students from the School of Environmental Science & Management (SESM) of Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) visited the area from 27th-30th December, 2007. Our research work was led by Prof. Haroun Er Rashid, Director of SESM, also a member of WNCSB.
According to our research, the threats to this ECA are varied, and can be divided broadly into natural and manmade reasons. Like everywhere else, manmade reasons are contributing immensely more to the destruction of the island than natural reasons. The most important threats are as follows:
1) SLR (Sea Level Rise)
2) Shortage of natural resources
B) Manmade/ Anthropogenic:
1) Commercial/ Unplanned tourism
2) Environmental pollutions
3) Resource extraction
4) Different experimental development projects
5) Other illegal and unnecessary economic operations/ activities
6) Negative impacts on local communities
Among the natural threats, SLR is the most important one. As the temperature of Bangladesh is increasing every year at a rate of 0.164° C, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has assesses that, in the next 100 years the sea level will increase 9cm to 88cm. But the truth is that, if it is increased a bit more that 45cm, about 720 sq km of our international heritage Sundarban will go under water. So, it is easily assume that the St. Martin's Island will sink first. The second important threat is the shortage of natural resources. Though there are verity of fauna and flora present over there, the amount of fresh water is becoming a significant question for the islanders. The island is becoming overpopulated due to unplanned and commercial tourism and over migration (internal immigration) to that place. Thus, a huge amount of fresh water is being used in the hotels and houses, making imminent some great hardship in the near future. It is very true that Bangladesh is a highly disaster prone zone.
Among the manmade reasons, commercial tourism is the most significant one.
There are a number of private hotels and restaurants beyond the capacity of the tourists in that particular area. Even now some new hotels are being constructed everywhere. A local officer from a development NGO “Bangladesh POUSH” took initiative to stop the illegal operation and went to the police with complaints. From a data survey I have found that 4 Ships are permitted to transport from Teknaf to St. Martin's Island. According to the Shipmen, in the tourism seasons, more than 1200 people come to visit the island everyday. More than 200 people moved by Launches. So, these huge numbers of people are using the existing resources as they wish. Thus, very near, the islanders will face huge shortage of fresh water. It can easily assume that if necessary steps can not be taken immediately, shortage of fresh water can turn into a natural calamity. Though the GoB, local administration and NGOs like Bangladesh POUSH have taken initiative to stop the illegal extraction of the coral, algae, gastropods, bivalves, boulders, turtle eggs etc., it is not totally stopped yet. Air, water, soil and noise pollution have increased greatly. Domestic wastes and water from the hotels and houses are polluting the water and soil. Air is being polluted because of the Ships, Bonfire and wastes that have been set on fire. Noise pollution has increased due to Ships, Launches, Music played by the tourists etc.
The local people are being negatively impacted due to the practices of some different experimental development projects. As some development projects of some NGOs have failed due to some reasons, people are becoming afraid and hostile. They are losing faith in the outsiders, who showed them a dream of development but become a failure project at last. The economical activities of that island are now carried by the outsiders mostly. Most of the shops, hotels and restaurants are owned by the outsiders. So, the actual profit goes to the outsiders, which made a bad impression to the local people. Moreover, the people who were dependent on natural resource extraction are now unemployed. It has made the islanders economically impoverished. Thus the negative impact on the society became our new finding which are not fully appreciated by the GoB and development NGOs.
To make island safer for the next generation, some recommendations are given as follows:
* A SLR research centre should be made immediately.
* A water research and management center should be made immediately.
* Ecotourism should be introduced rather than the commercial tourism.
* A ticket system for the tourists to enter into that area can be done for government revenue.
* GoB and NGOs have to be ensured the proper monitoring and evaluation system of development projects.
* The development projects should be planned for sustainable development.
* There should be comprehensible transparency in any kind of economical activities (no matter it is run by any NGO or GoB).
* GoB should have a better weather forecasting system thus the fishermen and the islanders can be safe in any disaster period.
* GoB should make an evacuation plan for the islanders in case of emergency.
* A particular place (considering the buffer zone, turtle breeding zone, coral extension zone etc.) should be given for anchoring all the boats and launches.
* Construction activities using sand, rod, cement etc. should be stopped.
* The local people should get priority for the economical activities rather than the out comers.
* The revenue system should be higher to the out comers than the local people.
* The GoB can take initiative to reduce the disaster risk level by connecting the local people, specially the boatmen and fishermen, with the two existing mobile networks. If every boat could be provided at least one low price mobile set and cheap call rate by any donor agency or NGO or Mobile Companies or GoB itself, the beneficiaries will be safe for years from any calamity as well as it will added revenue to the GoB and the mobile companies.
“Everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence.”
-George Santayana (1863 - 1952)
It is true that still now the condition is not very bad. But it can easily be projected that, if we do not think and consider the future of this island, very soon it will turn into an ecological disaster. As, the citizens of Bangladesh, it is our responsibility to accumulate our national wealth for the next generation. So, this is the right time for all of us to stand up to save the ECA- St. Martin's Island, so that our next generations find nature as their friend, not as a threat to them.
(President Environment Club SESM, IUB)