- The Baghjan oil well blowout of 2020 severely affected the biodiversity, fish populations and several livelihoods dependent on the Maguri Motapung Beel, a wetland and an Important Bird Area (IBA), in Assam.
- While some experts say that the monsoons following the blowout have helped wash away some pollutants and the wetland is recovering well, local communities say the recovery is negligible in stagnant waters.
- Government officials assure of a management plan in progress for the wetland’s restoration, but experts call for more detailed studies of the impacts, as there are other oil fields in the region.
On May 27, 2020, an oil field owned by Oil India Limited in Baghjan, located near the wetland Maguri Motapung Beel in Assam, experienced a gas leak which led to a blowout on June 9, 2020. It took over 173 days to ‘kill’ the blowout, which led to great environmental damage in the region.
Three years since the blowout, there are mixed opinions on the recovery of the ecosystem. While some say that the monsoons have helped wash away some of the pollutants, local communities observe long-lasting effects to their livelihoods and reduced species diversity.
The Maguri Motapung beel (lake) is a floodplain wetland in the Tinsukia district of northeastern India, covering an approximate area of 9.6 square kilometres. Located within the Brahmaputra floodplains, fed by Lohit and Dibru rivers in the north and south, the wetland connects Dibru Saikhowa National Park (south of the beel) and Nampada National Park in Arunachal Pradesh, forming an important wildlife corridor in the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot region.
Like other wetlands, this beel too supports a diversity of wildlife and provides plentiful resources. It is considered an important habitat for over 110 bird species including several threatened species such as the white-winged wood duck. Its rich fish diversity supports the livelihoods of a large population of local fishers.
After-effects of the blowout
An expert committee report submitted to the Supreme Court on December 31, 2021, stated that “major parts of the wetland were subject to oil spill and condensate disposition, burning, sound pollution, high temperature and burning, seismic activities and high concentration of toxic aerosols.” It highlighted that the assessments done by the Wildlife Institute of India and the DFO (Tinsukia) found evidence of “fish diseases and mortality, dolphin mortality, reduced sightings of several wetland species and vegetation burning.”
The condensate from the blowout released PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon) in water that affected human lives, agricultural crops and domesticated animals. It also contaminated the waters sources flowing to the beel, as the heavy monsoons during May 2020 flooded the two rivers.
A Wildlife Institute of India report stated, “The area around the spillover is of high biodiversity value. The spill has resulted in mass morality… The toxic fumes and oil coating has universally affected flora and fauna.”
Assam has 27% of India’s crude oil reserves. Excessive exploitation of oil and gas fields increases the risk of blowouts (previously witnessed in Dikom oil field in 2005, and in Naharkatia in 2011 which was underground).
A report to the one-person inquiry commission set up by the Assam government on the Baghjan blowout recorded 55% biodiversity loss due to the Baghjan blowout where “deaths of 25,825 animals belonging to 41 genera/families were counted.” It also stated that 70% of earthworms in the beel and its surrounding areas were recorded dead.
The same report also warns of the possibility of “one more blowout happening in Tinsukia district,” considering that there are several oil wells in the Baghjan region in the exploratory and developmental stages. While the oil rig where the blowout occurred is now non-functional, other oil rigs in the oil field are still functioning, this correspondent found from the field visit.
Impact on fishes, birds and livelihoods
The dearth of fish in the wetland following the blowout, accompanied by the public fear of consuming fish from the beel has affected the fishers of six villages — Baghjan Gaon, Purani Motapung, Rangara Te Natungaon, Gotong Gaon, Na-Motapung Gaon and Dhalakhat Gaon — located in the east, west and north of the beel.
“Earlier when we used to go fishing, there was an abundance [of fish]. Now we earn less than a quarter of what we used to earn. There is no fish. We simply go for fishing as we have no other means,” says 37-year-old Jibakanta Moran.
He adds that the uriam (Bischofia javanica) trees they had seen in the wetland since childhood had turned reddish, shed their bark and died after the condensate shower. “Earlier, the birds would come to eat the seeds [from the tree]. We would sit in their shade during summers, but now we have to take umbrellas or japis to protect ourselves from the scorching sun. People don’t use the dead trees for firewood, fearing it would offend some water spirit (dangoriya),” he adds.
Local communities claim that though there has been some recovery in the waters where the Dibru river flows across the southern part of the wetland, there is negligible recovery in the stagnant waters of the wetland.
Social activist and the gaon pradhan (village head) of Baghjan-Dighaltarang village, Manoj Hazarika recalls, “Initially after the blowout, snakes disappeared, then frogs, snails, tortoises, local fish and insects. Fish could not be consumed at that time; they smelt like kerosene.”
Eco tour guide, Papul Gogoi (25), laments the loss and scarcity of locally available fish like kanduli (Arius manillensis), puthi (Puntius sp.), goroi (Channa sp.), sengeli (Channa bleheri), singara (Sperata seenghala), singi (Heteropneustes fossilis), magur (Clarias batrachus), kholihona (Colisa fasciatus). “Some rare species of fish, local rou (Labeo rohita), borali (Wallago attu) have also shown decline in numbers,” says Papul shares.
The local residents also observe that the absence or decline of fish, moss, lichens, insects, and other aquatic plants that acted as food for local and migratory birds, led to an accelerated decline in the numbers of birds visiting the beel, which is listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA). This has also led to reduced tourists, they say.
However, artist and co-author of the book Birds of Maguri Motapung, and a long-time observer of the wetland, Deborshee Gogoi says, that habitat recovery (in the wetland) is more or less complete. “Grasslands have come back to life,” he argues. According to Deborshree, there was already a decline in seasonal birds visiting the region since 2016-2017, when a bridge was constructed adjoining Baghjan- Dighaltarang and Notun Rangagara, which led to an increase in human and commercial activities, and also cultivation in grasslands. “The blowout is a factor [for the decline], but birds had stopped coming even before that. Both the quantity and diversity of birds have lessened over the years,” he adds.
Even so, local communities and environmental activists believe that the waters contaminated by the condensate have still not been cleared of the pollutants. Activist Niranta Gohain while stating that migratory birds and ducks come to feed on the moss in the wetland, shares, “When the condensate fell on the wetland, the moss formed mounds and floated away. So, when the [migratory] Mandarin duck came, it stayed for just one or two days.” Gohain opines that since traces of condensate are present, moss will not form very soon.
The expert committee report mentions that the PAHs found were “carcinogenic”, having an effect on the physiology and immunity of animals. It also states that the loud sound would have “adversely impacted mammals, birds and insects, from disorientation to health issues.” The sparseness of biodiversity, absence of insects like the zeluk, earthworm, leeches, crabs, shrimps, and decline in the number of birds, is believed to be a behavioural change due to stress, an after-effect of the blowout.
Sarat Phukan, Professor of Geology at Gauhati University, who analysed some studies on the oil well blowout, explains that the soil and water in the vicinity of the Baghjan blowout site have not exhibited any unusual levels of toxic materials, though the exact reason for this remains unknown. “Successive monsoons over the past few years may have played a role in washing away any previously introduced toxic substances,” he says. Regarding the condensates, he opines that since these compounds consists of highly volatile hydrocarbons, “they float on water, tend to volatilise under normal atmospheric conditions and do not persist in the environment.”
When asked to comment on the absence of certain migratory avian species, Phukan says, “A comprehensive assessment by experts in the relevant fields is imperative. A thorough study is necessary to ascertain any potential links with the incident.”
Meanwhile, the former and the current District Forest Officers (DFOs) of Tinsukia, KK Deori and Khanindranath Das, assure that a management plan for the beel, is in the pipeline. “There is a plan in progress, proposed by the NGT…I am also a member of this committee. Meetings and discussions are going on,” Das shares.
Deputy Commissioner of Tinsukia, Swapneel Paul concurs about the management plan and adds, “Natural restoration [of the beel] has already happened. We are suggesting measures how to make this more sustainable for a long period of time. So, be it about increasing the number of dolphins, or how we can help the communities dependent on the wetland to get back their livelihood in a more sustainable way. We are already in talks with the nearby communities. Since it is an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ), this plan will be a part of the ESZ also.” According to Paul, the plan is still in the “nascent stage”.
“A complete recovery however, is not likely to happen in our lifetime,” Moran worries.
Banner image: Birds at at Maguri Motapung Beel, with OIL operations in the background. Photo by Bondita Baruah/Mongabay.