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    Volume 9 Issue 18| April 30, 2010|

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Heal This World

Antaki Raisa

Year: 1999
Location: St Martin's Island
Population: Around 1,000
Number of Hotels: One Government rest house. Other hotels, if there are any, are far from noticeable.
Transport through the Bay of Bengal: Trawlers.

An anecdote: Mehran Khan had his maiden visit to St Martin's island in 1999. In his words: "The first feel that I had stepping on the island was the feel of invading a virgin land. The island was untouched, almost empty and all natural. Even the local people were hardly seen, let alone any swarm of tourists that one can easily bump into these days. The water was so clean that the world beneath it seemed crystal clear. I had never seen such striking colours. Being a Dhaka-dweller all my life, it was an out-of-the-world experience for me.”

Photo courtesy: Fariha Haque

Year: 2009
Location: St Martin's Island
Population: Around 7,000
Number of hotels: Uncountable
Transport through Bay of Bengal: Trawlers in off-season. Cruise and ships offered by various tourism companies in tourist season.

An anecdote: Mubaswirun Nabi has been to St Martin's for two consecutive years. He says, “I saw fewer numbers of seagulls on the way to the island than the previous time. Before docking, there used to be warnings to avoid collecting or exploiting coral, oyster or shells, which I did not notice on my second trip. The water was less colourful and less clear; the beach was dirtier; the scenic beauty of the island seemed subdued. The number of vehicles had increased dramatically, so had the number of shops and tourists. I heard more of the crowd than the ocean. I was amazed by the drastic change just within a year!”

Year: 2019
Location: Location of the now-extinct St Martin's Island
Number of hotels: Nil.
Transport through Bay of Bengal: Nil

An anecdote: “St Martin's, the only coral island of Bangladesh has disappeared under the Bay of Bengal, due to astronomical pressure and destruction of the coral barriers around it.”- Headline of a well-known national newspaper.

We are lucky that the last scenario is still only in our imagination. But, if things keep going the way they are now, the fear will one day come true.

As a nation, we are not very enthusiastic nature lovers. What we have done to Cox's Bazaar and the Sundarbans is the dazzling example of this attribute. And as the annals suggest, St Martin's is not going to be any different.

Despite losing Buriganga to plastic and polythene waste, we never hesitate to throw the same poison to the Naf River on the way to or from St Martin's. And it's not just the tourists; the ships that arrive at the jetty at the Northeast portion of the island are our accomplices. Discharging toxic waste, crude oil into the water have already changed the colour of the shore-side water and destroyed the aquatic flora and fauna. The Eastern shore of the island does not have much wavy sea-line; hence trivial pollution can lead to destructive ends.

As you move along the wrecked jetty, you get a closer look at the mayhem. The island seems to have become a heap of large, small, medium hotels. Unfortunately, this is not the threatening part (though such gargantuan weight is threat enough to challenge the very existence of the island!). The threat, however, is how the hotels are constructed and maintained. The construction materials such as lime, bricks and even fence, produced by blowing up coral belts ashore and within the island, are destroying the geological balance of the entire island. You can literally feel the vibrating land during these demolitions. To meet the voracity of large number of tourists, these hotels almost solely depend on the local food supply. As a result, the lush green lands have become farms for cultivating grains. The already dangerous fishing technique has increased, threatening the marine geo-diversity. Moreover, the untreated waste is dumped into the water adjacent to the island, which is the habitat for the coral reefs. Most of the marine lives depend on this coral reef. Any harm to the reef will only destroy the eco-chain.

Coupled with the human-made destruction the St. Martin's Island faces nature's fury.

Thankfully, the Government has banned further constructions on the island and declared demolition of multistoried hotels. Then again, there have been orders to stop trading or exploiting corals, rules to manage raw material supplies for any constructions from Teknaf -- everything to protect and preserve the geo-diversity of this island. Every protocol so far has been severely violated.

These mercenary businessmen are not the only ones to blame. We, the tourists, share the blame equally. Have any of us ever been to St Martin's and never dropped a plastic wrapper on the beach; Or restrained ourselves from throwing plastic bottles into the Bay; Or consciously avoided shouting or using torch lights on the beach at night because it obstructs turtles to breed? “I am ready to bet anything on the answer to be no for anyone”, says Environmental Science student Tunazzina, “We are going to be the victims of our own deeds”.

The natives are immensely unaware of the significance of preservation as well. Only 5 percent of the total population uses sanitary latrine. The rest of the population uses the sea bed as the latrine! It is hazardous to the survival of benthic life. The over exploited fishery, the frequent use of dangerous gear, such as gillnets near the shore, the harmful anchoring practice are prime reasons of extinction of rare species. The unplanned deforestation for cultivation and removal of shore-side corals for trading purposes are simply ravaging the ecological balance of the island.

Add to this the booming population. The population of 112 in 1972 has grown into a population of staggering 7000 in 2009. Another 1,500 tourists come to the island everyday. As a result, the potable water which is available to anyone in the island digging only 12 meters down, is going down very fast now because of unlimited extraction of the groundwater required to meet the needs of the population. Soon the wells will be filled with saline water and the island will eventually become uninhabitable.

Coupled with the human-made destruction, the island faces nature's fury. Parallel to the threats to the coral reefs caused by global warming, the island faces worsening state of vulnerability due to climate change. Cyclones and fresh water running off during monsoon are also causing deaths of endangered species. A small islet called Bholar Dweep situated in between Teknaf and St Martin's Island disappeared in 1861, which might have been caused by an undersea quake or some sort of upheavals. The St Martin's might embrace the same fate.

We have lost myriads of rare benthal species, brilliantly coloured living corals, the sumptuous tranquility of the island itself to our negligence. We are on our way to exploiting the tiny Chhera Dwip. “The Wall” of Chhera Dwip, the 'Keya Gachh' is being wiped out to build booths and motels. Let's not repeat our mistakes. Our cumulative effort, smart and eco-friendly tourism policy, law enforcement, general awareness and most of all, our love for St Martin's island can still save it from the seemingly inevitable destiny. Our sincere effort can and will let this island remain our signature sanctuary of serenity. Let's heal this coral world; let's make it a better place, for you and for me and for the entire Bengali Race.



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