The government has forbidden all travel on a river in southwest Bangladesh, an area surrounded by the biggest mangrove forest in the world.

The ban on navigation in the Shela river was imposed after a ship carrying more than one thousand tons of coal sank, threatening the delicate equilibrium of the Sundarbans region and the home of the endangered Irrawady and the Ganges River dolphins.

“We have decided to prohibit all naval movement on the Shela River until further notice,” shipping secretary Ashok Madhob Roy told AFP, stating that all boats will be diverted to a different river adjacent to the mangrove forest.

Endangered aquatic biodiversity

The Bangladesh suspended the transport of cargo on the same river in 2014 after a catastrophic oil spill that damaged the Sundarbans and raised concerns for the future of the dolphins and other endangered species of the area, including the Bengal tiger.

However, this suspension was quickly lifted under pressure from local transport groups who deemed the river a vital method of transport for moving grain and industrial goods to the southwestern region of the country.

According to authorities, the cargo ship that crashed Saturday with 1200 tons of coal on board is cracked and has yet to be salvaged.

“The sunken coal could seriously endanger the aquatic biodiversity of the Sundarbans”, said forest conservator Zahir Uddin Ahmed to AFP.

“If the coal contains too much sulfur and it dissolves in the water, our fears are even more justifiable,” he added. “A cargo oil leak could also be damaging.”

Protection against the tsunamis

Situated at the mouth of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra River, the Sundarbans covers 10,000 square kilometers of earth and water. Its forests and swamps support a great diversity of flora and fauna, including many who are threatened with extinction.

This mangrove forest, known to be the biggest source of protection for the country in the event of a tsunami or a hurricane, is already facing major threats by industrial growth and human development.

Environmental activists recently participated in a 250km march in the southwest of the country to protest the construction of two coal-powered plants near the Sundarbans.