Urgent Protection Measures Needed for Bangladesh's Only Coral Island

By Apurba Swatee Mahboob, Capacity Building and Policy Advocacy Analyst, UNDP Bangladesh

June 13, 2023

Battling the Fury: Cyclone Mocha Threatens St Martin's Island's Fragile Ecosystem

Photo: Saikat Mojumder/ UNDP Bangladesh

As a passionate disaster management professional closely monitoring cyclone situations, I couldn't help but reflect on the recent cyclonic storm Mocha, this year’s World Environment Day, and the ongoing discussions surrounding the Plastic Treaty. This powerful storm threatened to make landfall on St Martin's Island, Bangladesh's only coral-bearing island, highlighting the urgent need for its protection. While the government implemented extensive measures to mitigate the cyclone's impact, the island still faces numerous threats to its biodiversity and ecosystem, requiring immediate attention and long-term conservation efforts.

St Martin's Island, spanning 7.35 square kilometers, boasts a diverse range of flora and fauna due to its unique soil type and ecological environment. This island and its surrounding areas are home to numerous species, including 153 species of seaweed, 66 species of coral, 187 species of oysters, 240 species of fish, 120 species of birds, 29 species of reptiles, and 29 species of mammals. Notably, it serves as a vital breeding zone for the olive-green turtle, one of the world's rarest and most endangered species.

However, the island's resources are under threat due to poor management practices. The exploitation of turtle eggs and the illegal killing of adult turtles have led to a decline in nesting populations. Unplanned construction of infrastructure, including hotels, motels, and residential complexes along the seashore, has caused irreversible damage. Additionally, pollution from oil, heavy metals, plastic, sewage, and chemicals, as well as the removal of keya forests, mangroves, and sand dunes, further exacerbate the island's vulnerabilities.

St Martin's Island attracts a significant number of tourists, almost eight times its carrying capacity, during the tourist season. The influx of visitors leads to overfishing, anchoring of boats, overburdened sewage, and the accumulation of plastic waste. Despite being declared an Ecologically Critical Area in 1999, hotels and resorts continue to be constructed on the island in violation of government regulations.

Plastic pollution has emerged as one of the most pressing environmental concerns globally, and St Martin's Island is not exempt. The island's small size and popularity among tourists contribute to the accumulation of plastic waste on its beaches and in the surrounding sea. The unsustainable management of plastic waste poses a significant threat to the island's fragile ecosystem. In light of this, this World Environment Day and ongoing discussions surrounding the Plastic Treaty emphasise the urgent need to address this issue and protect the biodiversity of St Martin's Island.

Nature's Wrath Unleashed: Mighty Sea Tide Engulfs St Martin Island's Shores

Photo: Saikat Mojumder/ UNDP Bangladesh

St Martin's Island already faces the risks of rising sea levels, making it highly vulnerable to cyclones and other hazards. Without proper support and a green belt, any future cyclone could cause devastating damage to the island. Therefore, it is crucial to implement nature-based humanitarian responses that integrate sustainable and green development practices.

To achieve this, it is essential to improve data availability on the island's ecology, assess coral reef damage, and establish pre-disaster information databases related to the environment. Priority should be given to preparedness actions, such as enhancing early warning systems, coordinating emergency responses, strengthening partnerships, and building institutional capacity. A projected contingency plan for response must be developed to effectively address future challenges.

Preserving the unique biodiversity and delicate ecosystem of St Martin's Island is not only a moral responsibility for Bangladesh but also an urgent necessity. While immediate humanitarian needs often take precedence in post-disaster situations, it is crucial to adopt sustainable and inclusive approaches that nexus in between humanitarian action and long-term crisis recovery.

Urgent Action Required: Protecting St Martin's Island from Environmental Threats and Preserving its Pristine Beauty