By Jithendri Gomes
We have heard of the famous Dead Sea, which is a salt lake bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. It certainly sounds like a fun place to visit as you are apparently able to (literally) float away without a problem.
A dead zone, on the other hand, is the opposite of fun. When spreading, it is said to kill all its living beings and hosts a very toxic environment.
As scary as it sounds, we must now face the reality of one of these zones spreading in our own waters – the Bay of Bengal. Sadly, we too are contributors to this killer phenomenon.
We spoke to Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager Dr. P.B. Terney Pradeep Kumara, who recently brought attention to this deadly matter, to ask him to educate us further on this “dead zone” forming in the Bay of Bengal.
Differentiating between the Dead Sea and dead zone
The Dead Sea is different to a dead zone found in the sea. The salt content in the Dead Sea is very high, therefore the water is very dense and you can easily float in the water. With a 34.2% salinity (in 2011), it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water and because of its’ salinity, there are no fish found in the water. Most importantly, it is a natural phenomenon.
“A dead zone is formed because of the high hydrogen sulphide levels in the water and it being toxic because of it. It also has a very bad stench. When more nitrates, phosphates, and other faecal matter are released to the water, the nutrient levels of the water increases. As a result, there is an increase in planktons and algae growth in the area. A process scientifically known as ‘eutrophication’ and is defined as ‘excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to run-off from the land, which causes a dense growth of plant life’. The algae formed, as a result, floats on top in large amounts and this blocks sunlight reaching the lower levels of the sea,” he explained.
“There is a high amount of vegetation in the sea and it dies due to this lack of sunlight. In this decomposing process, it releases hydrogen sulphide, which in turn absorbs more oxygen. As a result, this area is highly toxic and the animals and fish die. After a while, the previously formed algae layer also dies and it becomes a decomposing area which is identified as a dead zone. This phenomenon was first recognised in the 1980s.
“From the time it was identified in the 1980s, the dead zone phenomenon has increased 400 times more. Rivers from all the bordering countries like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and even Sri Lanka meet the Bay of Bengal and thus, all the waste and pollutants along with it. Oceanographers now estimate that it has spread across 6,000 square kilometres and with 100 to 400 meters in depth,” Dr. Kumara stated.
We are surpassing the ocean’s capabilities
The increasing amounts of nutrients released into the water are now surpassing the ocean’s ability to dilute it. One of the biggest contributors is the toxins that are inorganic to the soil used in crops.
These are released to rivers and make its way to the sea. It has become unbearable to the seam and has exceeded its critical line. Therefore, the agriculture industry is the most contributing and prominent sector in the South Asian region.
“We don’t know for sure if it can be completely reversed, as the polluting rate is only increasing every day. It usually is a very slow process and it takes many years for something like a dead zone to develop and spread quickly. But climate changes due to environmental pollution are speeding up the process. In order to stop it from spreading further, we must stop pollution to begin with,” he asserted.
The solution theoretically is to aerate the entire area affected, but it is not practical to do so for a 6,000-square-kilometre area. That is the problem; the only other way is to control damaging it any further.
“All countries bordering the Bay of Bengal are certainly contributing to it, but it is safe to say that India and Bangladesh are the most contributing countries, especially because they are the closest to the dead zone and their rivers are known to carry a lot of waste into the sea. Our contribution is comparatively a little less.”
‘It must be a regional effort’
If we are to rectify this situation, we must come together as a region as well as globally. The whole of South Asia must make a collective effort when it comes to this matter. Dr. Kumara proposed for an agreement to be signed in order for us to make a joint effort. However, if we are to sign an agreement on it, these are some of the areas that must be included, according to Dr. Kumara:
. Put all our efforts into stopping environmental pollution, especially to reduce the levels of plastics used
. Stop logging and preserve our forest reserves
. Reduce the usage of chemical nutrients
. Switch to natural agriculture methods
Our responsibilities and contributions
Reducing the use of polythene and plastic is one thing we can do at national and individual levels. It is something that we can easily do now, with so many options being available. We must change our farming methods and use agro-organic fertilisers instead of chemicals. We must certainly reduce the amount of waste and garbage released into the rivers. Industrial plants and organisations have a vital role to play as well.
“I firmly believe that we must ensure this is done globally and put forward a legally binding agreement for all countries to sign. This way, it becomes a must and we can monitor and ensure it is being done,” he shared.
As an individual, you can try and always resort to environmental-friendly options whatever the task may be. You can begin by planting your own home garden and crops. This way, you can reduce the chemical use which will also have a positive impact on your wellbeing. We must consciously make an effort to move away from plastics. We must also learn to manage our garbage as organically as possible.
The inevitable consequences
With it (the dead zone) being increased 400 times more, it is safe to say that it is spreading rapidly and that we must take quick measures to stop it. If not, the whole ocean will be dead. There are many consequences that a country or its people will face if this continues to spread:
. It will kill all the animals in the area
. The existing biodiversity of the area will be lost
. The fisheries industry (one that all South Asian countries and their economies heavily depend on) will perish
This will in turn have an effect on the tourism industry as water tourism is a major attraction in these countries. Everything from diving, snorkelling, and water sports will stop.
An opportunistic species will evolve and spread in these areas as the balance has to be maintained. It may also turn into an epidemic. Once it happens, most often, it is irreversible and we are also uncertain as to what to expect.
The ocean dynamic can change. This will affect climate change and ocean currents. Already, the increasing temperature levels are affecting all phenomena, only proving to increase the processes.
Spreading awareness is key
It is important to spread awareness and educate people with the importance of reducing pollution levels. We must make initiatives and make the public aware about the importance of reducing the use of chemicals and inorganic matter and releasing faecal matter. We must educate the people with the steps they can take and the role they play when it comes to this issue. We must encourage the use of environment-friendly practises.
“The Ministry of Agriculture certainly has a vital role to play and must take up the responsibility. They must stop all the land reclamation projects, deforestation, mining efforts, etc. I must highlight that they are encouraging tea plantations currently and in the long run, it will contribute positively. The Mahaweli Authority has been taking a lot of positive steps by reducing logging and pollution rates, and they must be acknowledged for their efforts,” Dr. Kumara concluded.
The Sunday Morning Brunch also spoke to Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) Committee Member and Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) Director Rukshan Jayewardene about how detrimental the use of plastic really is, as discussed before, which is a main contributor to the spreading of dead zones and, safely to say, almost all environmental problems.
“We are one of the (countries with the) highest per capita use of plastic in the world and easily in the top 10 in the overall listing. We seriously need to cut back our usage. There are two ways in which this can be achieved: One is to minimise our overall use and reuse so that you delay the discarding time. And two is to substitute other materials. For example, the multi-use bags that are available at supermarkets for a nominal fee. With this, I must highlight that you must put in some research as to how these products are made and make sure that the technology used is not polluting the environment as well. Sometimes they require a lot of energy like fossil fuels and electricity to be produced. Making the switch may not necessarily be the solution. Find a low polluting and sustainable solution so that it is a win-win situation,” he explained.
Increasing levels of pollution in water bodies
Jayewardene continued: “What essentially happens is that people around the country who live near flowing water use it to get rid of waste and any kind of refuse. It may be a stream or a river but ultimately, they do end up in the ocean or a stagnant lake where they settle.
Getting rid of pollutants from your premises is not the solution. We have now found out that even if it is recognised as biodegradable, it continues to persist and last in the environment. It does break down to molecules but these molecules release toxins and continue to exist.
“It is a less spoken topic and proves to be controversial because of the commercial interests tied up to it. We all have to change our practices. We had good practices in the past, but we have changed them for convenience and globalisation. We must understand that environmental problems are not reversible.”