DHAKA - Bangladesh's rapid development on the doorstep of the ecologically fragile Sundarbans mangrove forest means "environmental disasters" like this month's oil spill in the massive delta are increasingly likely, experts warn.
A cargo ship last week crashed into an oil tanker in thick fog in a river of the Sundarbans, whose intricate network of waterways is home to rare dolphins, endangered Bengal tigers and other animals.
Authorities failed to organise a proper clean up until four days after the sunken tanker spewed tens of thousands of litres of oil into a dolphin sanctuary - ordering villagers and fishermen armed only with sponges and pans to scoop up the thick tar.
The Bangladeshi government opened up the delta in 2011 to large commercial vessels - a decision environmental experts described as a "bomb waiting to explode".
The world's largest mangrove forest faces further threat from a range of projects underway to feed Bangladesh's booming economy, including a coal-fired power plant and a massive grain silo.
"The forest has lost half its cover in the last five decades. Now we've laid the groundwork to put the last nail in its coffin," Bangladesh's top independent wildlife expert, Mohsinuzzaman Chowdhury, said of the projects.
Chowdhury said he feared not only increased pollution from the projects but larger numbers of workers who would place greater stress on the delicate forest.
"Presently, around one million people are directly or indirectly dependent on the forest. But in the next decade, this number could grow to more than five million," Chowdhury said.
World Heritage site
The US$1.7 billion (S$2.23 billion) power plant is being built 14 kilometres (nine miles) from the northern entrance of the delta to provide much-needed power to the impoverished but rapidly developing country.
Bangladeshi authorities came under fire over the 1,320-megawatt plant during a recent conference in Dhaka on efforts to save the world's tiger population.
National forestry chief Yunus Ali said his department initially "raised concern" over the plant being built on the banks of the Poshur river that flows into the forest.
"But the authorities have since adopted an environment management plan to mitigate any possible negative impact," he said.
A senior Sundarbans forest official cast "doubt" on the assessment, saying he was concerned waste from the tonnes of burnt coal would be dumped in the river when the plant finally becomes operational in 2018.
"Our main concern is waste and hot water management. Definitely, the plant would pump sludge in the Sundarbans' rivers. It will also spew thick dust, which will spread to the forest," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Local populations have long been allowed to hunt and fish in the Sundarbans, parts of which are UNESCO World-Heritage listed. Spread over 10,000 square kilometres (4,000 square miles), the delta is roughly two-thirds in Bangladesh and one-third in neighbouring India.