30 Jun 2020

Wetlands ablaze: oil well leak causes major environmental incident in Assam

A major gas leak and blowout at the Baghjan oil field, in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, has severely damaged the nearby wetlands of Maguri-Motapung and polluted the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River, as well as adjacent areas of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.

Assam’s Maguri-Motapung wetlands have been on fire since June 9th Photo: Gogoi Biswajit
By Anuj Jain, Ding Li Yong & Mike Crosby

Located on the floodplains of the sacred Brahmaputra River, Assam’s Maguri-Motapung wetlands, alongside the adjacent Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, form one of the richest areas for wildlife in all of India. A popular eco-tourism destination, the area is home to some of the largest congregations of waterbirds in the country, including rare migratory species from the imperilled East Asian-Australian Flyway. It should be a birding paradise – but at time of writing, it is up in flames.

The area is also home to mammals such as buffalo, leopards and slow loris Photo: Kamal Moran

The shadow of the nearby Baghjan oil field has long loomed large over this ecologically sensitive landscape. The uneasy proximity of this major oil infrastructure to not one but two Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs – sites of global importance to biodiversity) has long been forewarned by conservationists. Unfortunately, their worries have proved well founded.

The oil field, which has been leaking gas and oil since late May, caught fire earlier this month, and the resultant spread has damaged stretches of the adjacent wetlands and grasslands. Ongoing surveys by conservation experts are only beginning to reveal the extent of the ecological damage suffered. Local officials have already recovered a dead Ganges River Dolphin (a subspecies of the Endangered South Asian River Dolphin Platanista gangetica), a photo of which is now widely circulated in Indian media, not to mention thousands of dead fish and oiled birds.

Besides the damage suffered to nature, local communities have also been adversely affected by the gas and oil leak disaster. Large areas of cultivation is now contaminated, while local water sources have been adversely impacted, impacting the livelihoods on local communities. The eco-tourism set-ups for birdwatchers have been severely damaged, potentially impacting the flow of tourism already dampened by the coronavirus. Thousands of people have now been evacuated from the affected zones.

 It is now imperative that the disaster be quickly put under control, and efforts urgently taken to assess ecological damage, while undertaking further actions to restore affected areas of the wetlands, which may take years. Given its location on the Brahmaputra floodplains, these rich landscapes of forests, grassland and riverine wetlands hosts many bird and mammal species, including four birds classed as Critically Endangered; Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris, White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis and Baer’s Pochard Aythya baeri, as well as species unique to the region such as Marsh Babbler Pellorneum palustre (VU) and Black-breasted Parrotbill Paradoxornis flavirostris (VU). Both sites are part of the Assam Plains Endemic Bird Area (EBA), and their KBA designation reflects their global importance.

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Marsh Babbler (Vulnerable) Photo: Yann Mazuka

BirdLife through its country partner, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), has worked in Assam for years to document the populations and ecology of several poorly known grassland and wetland birds, while better understanding how local people connect with forests, grasslands and wetlands in the area. Through the work led by BNHS and local partners, key landscapes here have become recognised KBAs. “Preliminary surveys by our team shows that large patches of grassland have turned to ash”, says Dr. Girish Jathar, Assistant Director of the BNHS, who oversees many of the Society’s conservation programmes.  This, unfortunately, is likely to have a big impact on threatened species such as Black-breasted Parrotbill and Swamp Grass Babbler as this is their peak breeding season.

“It is possible that several nests, young and adult birds might have perished and those which might have survived will be pushed into suboptimal habitats.”

The current disaster demonstrates the environmental risk posed by building major oil infrastructure near to KBAs without a mitigation plan, or designations of areas to buffer protected landscape from accidents such as blowouts and oil spills. The recent permission granted to Oil India Limited to operate oil wells well within the Dibru Saikowa National Park is controversial and will likely add yet another sticking point to the conservation of these important landscapes – which makes our work to fight for greater protection of KBAs all the more vital.