Bangladesh’s proposed deep-sea port at Sonadia Island:
Another alarm bell rings in South Asia
by Zahirul Islam, MarineLife Alliance
The Bangladesh Government is considering to establish a deep water sea-port at Sonadia Island, in Cox’s Bazar, a biodiversity hotspot that is currently free from anthropogenic impacts such as development and tourism. Its pristine sandy beach, mudflats, nearshore sandbars, high dunes and mangrove formations are unique – serving as an important habitat for endangered sea turtles and wintering shorebirds.
Lying within the East Asian - Australasian Flyway, Sonadia is used by migratory birds as a stopover during their long migration further south. In January 2009, in the area where the deep-sea port has been proposed, we counted eight individuals of Spoonbill sandpiper – one of the rarest migratory birds in the world, with a population of just 300-350 pairs in the wild (Zöckler, 2006). Sonadia is considered ecologically important by the government and in 1999 was declared as an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) under Environmental Act of 1995.
A Japanese consultancy firm named Pacific Consultant International (PCI) conducted a feasibility survey for the construction of the deep-water seaport. The proposed port would have 58 jetties, with a total length of 11 kilometers. The plan is to build the port in three phases, with an expenditure of US $8.6 billion. The Bangladesh government will seek project funding from international donors. The first phase would be completed by 2016 and the full development finished by 2055.
If constructed, the port would drastically change the habitats important for sea turtles, shorebirds and cetaceans, but it would also threaten mangroves and overall marine resources in an area where hundreds of thousands of community people from the whole of Moheskhali, Kutubdia and even Chittagong depend for their daily livelihood. According to some estimates, 700-800 fishing boats are engaged in fishing in Sonadia's nearshore and offshore waters, depending on the season.
PCI selected the Sonadia site in the Cox's Bazar district, with a second suitable site option (of similar depth) about 20 km north at Kutubdia Island. This alternative site is less important for biodiversity as compared to Sonadia Island, and would leave a sufficient buffer zone. Sonadia's selection is backed by people with financial motivations, who appear not to have any environmental consciousness. One has to question whether a full environmental assessment was even carried out during the feasibility study.
It is sad that none of the government departments responsible for these issues, nor the international conservation organisations in the country, have raised questions publically about the deep seaport proposal. It is our request to all concerned people, scientists and environmentalists – nationally and internationally – to advocate and raise these issues and try to convince the Bangladesh Government to relocate the deep-sea port site away from this biodiversity hotspot.
SONADIA ISLAND LANDSCAPE
Sonadia Island is a part of the Moheskhali upazila (district) located between 21°28'26.92"N 91°55'53.74"E and 21°32'49.47"N 91°50'38.45"E. Consisting of gently sloping low-lying coast unprotected from the sea, Sonadia Island has formed as a barrier island just south-west of Moheshkhali Island. Natural sandy breakwaters face parallel to the flat coastlines of Moheshkhali. To the east a small channel separates the two islands while to the southeast shallow bays separate it by 3.5 km from the mainland Cox's Bazar.
A sandy beach and ridge extends along the length of Sonadia Island from north-west to south-east. The dunes run along the entire coast and are also fringed several hundred meters inward. They support dune-associated vegetation viz. Ipmoea and Vitex. Large tracts of mangrove and salt marshes/mudflats dominate the Island, though significant areas have been converted to aquaculture and agriculture. Unspoiled sandy beaches and extensive shallow sand bars provide important feeding, roosting and nesting grounds for birds and turtles. To the north, Ghotivanga is characterised by large stretches of mangrove and mudflats interspersed with canals and some sandy areas along the shoreline facing the Moheshkhali Channel.
HABITATS / COMMUNITIES - SAND DUNES, BEACHES AND SANDY SHOALS
An intertidal sandy beach and sandy ridge extends for approximately 12.5 km along the length of the western side of Sonadia Island, from north-west to south east. The beach is rich in mollusk shells. Wind and waves are the major forces determining the features of the dunes. The dunes are constantly changing location through the seasonal strong blowing winds. The beaches and shallow shoals surrounding the site provide an excellent staging area and wintering ground for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, and the sand dunes provide nesting grounds for marine turtles. The sandy shore is the last remaining habitat for numerous red crabs that still roam in the area.
MUDFLATS: There are several mudflat areas rich in intertidal grassy vegetation and mangrove growth. The total mudflat area was estimated at 1,175 ha in 1999. The largest undisturbed salt marsh area is in south Sonadia Island; other areas are along the mangrove formations north of Sonadia West village, between Moheshkhali and Sonadia Islands, and along the mangrove formations of Baradia-Vanga canal in Moheshkhali. The mudflats are an important habitat for migratory and resident birds and numerous species of invertebrates.
MANGROVE: The site supports the last remnant of natural mangrove forest in south-east Bangladesh. The mangroves have developed in a lagoonal coastal setting and also deltaic formation, with salt-tolerant dominant species attributed to the extreme ecological factors of high salt-content soil and water. The mangrove is distributed at the sheltered inland part of Sonadia Island and a very narrow intertidal area on the edge of the estuary, covering an area of 332 ha, and at northern Ghotivanga, covering an area of 169 ha, giving a total mangrove area of 500 ha. The mangrove is dominated by the shrubby Aegialitis rotundifolia and consists of seven tree species of Avicennia spp. and Aegialitis rotundifolia which constitute the upper and lower stratum, attaining a maximum height of 3.6 and 2.4 metres respectively. The mangroves provide an excellent wintering ground for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, and a nursing and feeding ground for fish and shrimp species.
ESTUARINE AND NEAR-SHORE WATERS: The site’s near-shore waters consist of a number of channels separated by shallow sand bars. Sonadia also has several mangrove-dominated estuarine canals and lagoons, covering a total area of approx. 316 ha. The eastern part of the site is fed by freshwater from the Bakkhali River estuary and Moheshkhali Channel, and the western part of the site from the Kuhelia River. The near-shore waters provide important habitat for breeding, growth and development of many inshore and nearshore fishes and invertebrate species of the north-eastern part of the Bay of Bengal.
The site’s diverse habitats support three different vegetation types. The vegetation of the sand dunes consists of 35 species of angiosperm, in particular Ipomea pescapre, Vitex trifolia, Ziziphus mauritania, Clerodendrum inerme, Pandanus odoratissimus and Calotropis gigantia. The sand dunes also support medicinal plants such as nishinda and akondo. The salt marsh vegetation consists of Porteresia coarctata and Myristichia wighthenia. The plant population of Porteresia coarctata (Roxb) Tateoka at Sonadia Island, a wild grass relative of rice, is internationally important for the development of salt-tolerant varieties of rice. It represents the land race of the species, which is more tolerant of salinity than any other land races along the central and western coasts of Bangladesh. Twenty seven species of mangrove and mangrove-associated vegetation were recorded in earlier surveys, with common species being Avicennia officinalis, Avicennia marina, Avicennia alba, Sonneratia apetala, Aegicerus corniculatum, Ceriops decandra and Aegialitis rotundifolia. The presence of Sonn eratia griffithii is noteworthy, being once common in the mangroves of Bangladesh and no longer found in any other area. A sea grass, Halophila becarrii, has also been recorded in the vicinity of the island.
BIRDS: About 70 species of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds visit the site for resting, roosting, feeding and wintering, and as a staging ground during migration. These include four bird species that are listed as globally threatened - the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), Asian Dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus), Nordmann’s Greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and River Lapwing (Vanellus duvaucelii). An annual waterfowl census is conducted mid-winter along the East Asia Australasian flyway, including at two spots in Bangladesh within the ECA (Sonadia Island and Ghotivanga). During surveys carried out every year since 2005, the spoonbill sandpiper has been spotted by international and local teams with an aggregation of shorebirds averaging forty thousand individuals altogether in different mudflats in Sonadia and Moheskhali areas.
REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS: Apart from sea turtles, the presence of two fresh-water turtles is reported: the Bengal-eyed turtle (Morenia peterci) and the Indian flap shell turtle (Lissemys puctata). Several small lizards are seasonally common including the garden lizard (Calotes versicolor), common skink (Mabuya carinata), common gecko (Gekko gecko) and house lizard (Hemidactylus brooki). Terrestrial snakes are very rare but they include the yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamis platurus) and estuarine sea snake (Hydophis obscurus). Ten species of frogs and one species of toad were recorded on Sonadia, including the bull frog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus), skipper frog (Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis) and climber frog (Kaloula pulchra).
FISH: Previous surveys of the Moheshkhali Channel found 79 species of fish, including 78 bony fish species. Common juvenile and mature fish species using the area as a nursing ground include tade mullet (Liza tade), Speigler's mullet (Valamugil speigleri), flathead mullet (Mugil cephalus), Croakers (Sciaenidae), Engraulids (Coilia dussumieri, Thryssa hamiltoni), silver grunt (Pomadasys argenteus), yellowfin seabream (Acanthopagrus latus), gizzard shad (Anadonstoma chakunda), four-finger threadfin (Eleutheronema tetradactylum), whiting (Sillago sihama) and eel catfish (Plotosus canius). There is a lack of information on the fish fauna of the area. Surveys need to be conducted to obtain up-to-date information on the present status of fish biodiversity and stock size, seasonal abundance and dependent populations/communities.
INVERTEBRATES: The site is very rich in mollusks and crustaceans. Mollusk species belonging to 14 genera of bivalves, clams, mussels and oysters are known to occur at the site (Anon., 1990). Crustaceans include various species of portunid crabs (Mud Crab, Scylla sp. and Blue Swimmer Crab, Portunus pelgicus). Of particular importance is the Indian Horseshoe Crab or King Crab (Carcinoscorpinus rotundicauda), which is considered a living fossil and is listed as a threatened species. Nineteen species of peneaid, solenocerid, sergestid and careidean prawn species have been recorded in a number of surveys of the Moheshkhali channel.
CETACEANS: The canals and near shore and offshore areas of Sonadia Island support at least four species of globally threatened coastal and marine cetaceans, including Finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) and Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis). All are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Another three cetacean species recorded in an upper Bay of Bengal survey conducted in 2004 may also exist around the island. Cetaceans have been recorded at the Vanga Canal (northern boundary of the Sonadia Island ECA), at the estuary and upstream of the major canal between Moheshkhali and Sonadia Islands (Bara Dhar). Cetacean species diversity may be greater than recorded so far.
SEA TURTLES: Last but not least, the threatened Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nest at Sonadia Island. The nesting site is considered unique in Bangladesh in view of the fact that the beach is pristine, free from tourism and other impacts. The annual nesting there and on adjacent broken beaches to the north is nearly 250 per year from both species. Ongoing conservation activities with community participation are conducted by Marinelife Alliance and the Department of Environment.
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The contrast facing Bangladesh’s decision-makers could not be more stark: Sonadia can be protected as a sanctuary with the help of community people, whereas a deep sea port will ruin forever any possibility to preserve this wonderful natural habitat. A deep sea port at Sonadia Island would destroy the habitat not only of sea turtles, but also shorebirds and other biodiversity related to coastal wetland and marine systems.
We are not against the development of infrastructure that will support Bangladesh's economy. But we urge people of Bangladesh and the international community to take notice of what is at stake, and to voice concerns to those empowered to decide on this project – particularly, to ask why a major development is planned in such a remarkable, relatively unspoiled environment when a suitable alternative exists just 20 km away.