Indian 'Dirty' Coal Plant to Destroy UNESCO Heritage Forest in Bangladesh

At the edge of the great Sundarbans, in Bangladesh, sits the town of Rampal. The Sundarbans – a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning southern Bangladesh and India – is a vast mangrove forest that is the home to the fabled Royal Bengal Tiger. Rich in flora and fauna, the Sundarbans has inspired academic research (Annu Jalais’ Forest Of Tigers) and works of fiction (Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide). The forest is essential to millions of people who either eke out their sustainable livelihoods from its wealth or who are protected from storms, cyclones and tidal surges by its remarkable capacity to absorb the energy of the Bay of Bengal.

Studies by the UN and others show that as a result of global warming, the coastline has retreated by a few hundred meters. Rising waters have already claimed the Lohachara Island and the Bangabandhu Island, with the Ghoramara Island close to being submerged. UNESCO warned in 2007 that a 45-centimeter rise in water levels would ravage 75 per cent of the Sundarbans.

Changing climate – as a result of the maddening ravenous capitalist system – threatens the Sundarbans. But – on an even shorter time-scale – a coal-fired power plant, built at the edge of the Sundarbans, endangers this World Heritage Site with its effluents in the water and in the air. The parties involved are multinational banks, as well as the Indian government’s drive to create infrastructure projects that deepen India’s ‘big neighbor’ status in Bangladesh.

In 2010, India’s National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board signed a Memorandum of Understanding to build a 1320-megawatt plant in Rampal. The two partners said that the plant would be 14 kilometers from the Sundarbans. Bangladesh’s government has designated a 10-kilometer perimeter from the Sundarbans, a zone known as the Environmentally Critical Area (ECA). It is illegal to build something like a coal-fired power plant within the ECA. Activists contend that the plant is actually not 14-kilometers away, but only 9-kilometers – namely that it is within the ECA and so violates the law. This has been brushed away. The plant – despite grave environmental threats – will likely be completed and will expel its first carbon into the atmosphere in 2019.

Pressure from activist platforms such as the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports as well as National Committee to Protect the Sundarbans forced the High Court to insist on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The Department of Environment hurried to produce an EIA without public comment. It concluded – as was expected – that the plant was ‘environmentally friendly.’ With this EIA in hand, the governments of Bangladesh and India moved on 20 April 2013 from a Memorandum of Understanding to an Agreement to build the power plant.

But the EIA’s data and other material from other departments of the Bangladesh government suggest that things should not move so smoothly. The report suggests that the plant will spew 18 million tons of carbon dioxide (along with sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide) as well as hundreds of thousands of tons of fly and bottom ash. Enormous amounts of water – from the already depleted Passur River – will have to be used to cool the plant, and then this dirty water will be released into the precious mangrove forest.

On 29 September 2011, in an act of public dissent, the chief conservationist of the Directorate of Forests – Ishtiaque Uddin Khan – wrote a letter to the Ministry of Forests about the dangers of the Rampal Power Plant. ‘It would not be wise,’ he wrote, ‘ to construct any industrial factory inside the Sundarbans. The construction of a coal-based power-plant will threaten the Royal Bengal Tiger and all of the biodiversity of the Sundarbans.’ This letter was likely filed in a vault, which will next be opened by a historian long after the Sundarbans have vanished.

Strikingly, another dissent came from the Ministry of Shipping of the Bangladesh government. Almost five million tons of coal will have to be transported to the plant. This cargo will be carried by large ships to the Akram Port, and then by smaller ships to the Rampal site. The letter from the Shipping Ministry says that the ‘increased ship movement through water channels in the Sundarbans Reserved forest will disturb the serene environment of Sundarbans.’ Knowing the realities of shipping, the Ministry’s official wrote that the large and smaller ships ‘may cause oil pollution due to seepage, leakage and pumping out of bilges from the ship into the forest rivers.’ This is bad, he wrote, because ‘oil once discharged may cover the breathing roots of the Sundari [mangrove] trees endangering their growth and ultimately leading towards depletion of the forest.’

In March last year, UNESCO sent a team to the Sundarbans to assess the impact of the power plant on the World Heritage Site. Their report – released in June – suggested that the plant had a ‘high likelihood’ of ‘contamination’ of the Sundarbans from ‘air and water pollution’ and from shipping and dredging. In other words, the UNESCO team agreed with the dissenters in the Bangladesh government and with the activists. Its conclusion is clear – ‘It is recommended that the Rampal power plant project is cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location where it would not impact negatively on the Sundarbans Reserved Forest and its property.’

Even this UNESCO verdict came after a great deal of internal struggle by Bangladeshi activists. The initial UNESCO fact-finding mission was heavily corralled and managed by the Bangladeshi government, denying access to any critical voices. In a blistering critique of UNESCO, Maha Mirza wrote, ‘What are we supposed to make of it? Your lack of understanding of the ground politics? Your faith in “super critical” technology? The Memorandum of Understanding that you had to sign up for? A play-safe strategy?’ (‘Dear UNESCO, do you have a Plan B?’, Dhaka Tribune, 10 April 2016). It was only after being held to account by local activists that UNESCO finally reached out to critical voices.

Anu Muhammad is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, and one of the leading leftist critics of neoliberalism in Bangladesh (he was one of the earliest Bangladeshi critics of the debt microcredit model of Muhammad Yunus’ Nobel Prize winning Grameen Bank). In his role as convener of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports Anu Muhammad commented, ‘The UNESCO report proves that the statement we’ve been issuing for so long is scientific and justified. Instead of mulling over how to reply to the UNESCO report, the government should look into how speedily it can cancel this project.’ Sultana Kamal, senior human rights activist, secularism advocate, and convener of the National Committee to Protect the Sundarbans, said that the UNESCO report ‘adds to a growing body of independent expert analyses showing the many ways the Rampal coal plant’s inadequate pollution controls and inappropriate site location will harm the Sundarbans.’

Part of the frustration is that the deal tremendously advantages India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), who has put equity into the plant, but will benefit from sale of coal to it and has limited risks if the plant fails. Cancellation of the project would leave the bill in Bangladesh’s hands. It is not clear how much liability will vest with the Indian partner. Esa Abrar, a New York-based architect and international secretary for Protibesh Andolan (Ecology Movement), wryly notes, ‘If the Bangladesh government has to depict their obedience towards India by destroying the Sundarbans, then Bangladesh does not need any other foes.’

Bangladesh certainly has a shortfall in its energy production. But other alternatives exist. ‘There are many alternatives for electricity,’ says the slogan in the poster above, ‘There is no other Sundarbans.’ Jenny Bock of Friends of the Earth says, ‘Bangladesh’s government should expand the country’s already flourishing solar industry to improve access to electricity and help the country develop sustainably, neither of which will be accomplished by building a coal plant near the Sundarbans.’

Our carbon civilization threatens the Bangladeshi coastline. If Bangladesh builds a coal-fired plant right on this front-line of climate change, how could it make the case to other states who need to urgently quit their carbon-addiction?


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