The Sundarbans is one of the largest remaining mangrove forests in the world, and lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal.
The area is rich in biodiversity, hosting a large variety of mangrove forests, as well as tigers, crocodiles, snakes and wild deer.
The Sundarbans also provide an effective flood and storm barrier for the millions who live in and around Kolkata, West Bengal.
But this precious area is also under threat from development. Bangladesh is a developing country, and it needs energy.
Plans are afoot to build a large coal power station on the Bangladesh side of the border with India. Local journalist Probir Kumar Sarker has sent us the following report.
It is frustrating that the government is moving ahead with the much-opposed 1320MW coal-fired power plant at the mouth of the Sundarbans in Rampal of Bagerhat, along Poshur river, despite the fact that the proposed project is yet to get complete environmental clearance and nod from the High Court.
Averting the possible hazards on the people around the project and the Sundarbans’ creatures and plants, the Bangladesh government on January 29 signed a joint venture agreement with India’s state-run electricity generation company to implement the $1.5 billion project keeping the issues of ‘price of electricity’ and ‘funding’ unresolved.
Last year the High Court ordered the project to be delayed after a public interest litigation filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) on behalf of the locals opposing the plant. But the court withdrew its order temporarily following a petition by the attorney general.
By this time, the government has also secured a local clearance from the Department of Environment (DoE), which at the same time, put some conditions on mitigation measures to ease hazards by the project – situated around nine kilometres off the Sundarbans.
Surprisingly, the government has recently allocated Tk 62.45 crore (approx £4.8m) to acquire 1,834 acres of land in Satmari-Katakhali and Koigordashkathi areas of Lubachhora under Rampal upazila.
The process of acquiring the land for the project began formally earlier last month, avoiding publicity, with the Khulna mayor, with support from the local MP, distributing cheques worth Tk 2.5 crore (approx £200,000) among 67 landowners.
The government has also taken an imitative to dredge 10 kilometres of the Poshur river to allow easy access of Indian ships carrying coal for the plant.
“Taking this into account, I think it’s not right to approach with financial issues on the project. It would be wasted if the court orders against the project,” said Manzill Murshid, lawyer for the petitioner HRPB.
Economy v Environment
According to a recent report, at a meeting between the DoE and the Power Division in May last year the officials of the division admitted that the environmental aspects of the project were ignored when it was initiated – rather its economic advantages were considered.
And even though the Joint Venture Company is divided 50-50 between the two sides, it has an Indian chairman, and the plant will be built and run by India.
Due to an inadequate supply of local coal, the operator suggests that the project uses imported coal – presumably of Indian origin. The Bangladesh government has decided to bring in coal through the Mongla sea port.
The price of electricity could be between Tk 5 and 7, officials say, when the government purchases power at around Tk 3 from the only state-run coal-fired power plant at Barapukuria.
The court in its order last year asked the government to explain why the project should not be declared illegal. It is yet to hold further hearing and give its order on the issue.
Most of the locals of three villages who will have to leave their lands are protesting the project. They claim the project will jeopardise their dependency on agriculture and other farming once the land is acquired by the government.
It will have impact on their lifestyle and education – moreover, the effect on the people of the surrounding areas, land and water will also be adverse, environmentalists say.
The Rampal project has drawn much criticism for its location due to the ecological significance of the forest – declared a global heritage declared by UNESCO in 1997 – and at a time when the present government is outspoken and leading the way against climate threats.
Besides this project, the Bangladesh government is creating a deep-water anchorage at Akram Point, in the middle of the Sundarbans, to export coal. The construction of a naval shipyard nearby is also underway.
The government is also in negotiations with the Malaysian state-run power generation company to install a 1400MW coal-fired power plant in Cox’s Bazar – the largest single sea-beach in the world.
While recognising the Sundarbans, UNESCO’s evaluation committee said the forest supports an exceptional biodiversity with a wide range of flora and fauna, including the Bengal Tiger – and provides a significant example of on-going ecological processes (monsoon rains, flooding, delta formation, tidal influence and plant colonisation).
Meanwhile, it is a matter to be concerned when the forest is already facing threats from pollution, deforestation, rise in salinity and extinction of many species mainly due to human carelessness, ignorance and lack of implementation of laws, poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
The Sundarbans is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes.
The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.
Because of the dominance of saline conditions, the forest flora in the western Sundarbans is not as diverse as in the east.
Forest areas are dominated by a few species mostly Sundri and Gewu and patches of Nypa palm and several other of the 27 species of mangrove that are found in the Sundarbans.
Local people and environmentalists have been opposing the plan and urged the government to shift the location considering the possible effect on the one of the world’s largest remaining mangrove forests.
On January 28 twelve eminent citizens sought the prime minister’s intervention to protect the Sundarbans – after the people had voted to elect the area as one of the new seven wonders of nature, the decision to construct such a power plant was not acceptable, they observed.
The plant is likely to burn around 4.75 million tonnes of coal annually when some 3 lakh tonnes ashes and around 5 lakh tonnes sludge or liquid waste would be produced. It would also emit a good amount of carbon dioxide – key factor for global warming – some other toxic gases and airborne particles, according to Union of Concerned Scientists, a USA-based group.
But the government maintains that the project would not be harmful, citing possible mitigation measures to be undertaken.
I disagree – even though the project is likely to contribute significantly electricity to the national grid by 2016 – firstly, considering its location and secondly, due to the government’s moving ahead with the land acquisition process before the petition is disposed of at the court.
In the face of a debate between the government and those concerned, the court had asked the attorney general to arrange discussions with the prime minister to resolve the issue, the lawyer added.
Another High Court bench on October 10, 2010 gave a similar ruling on the government for an explanation over the 1,320MW coal-fired plant at Anwara of Chittagong. The government has recently signed a deal with a Chinese company to implement the plant.
Environmental activists and citizens’ groups in Bangladesh side condemn the government’s hastening with the project when the feasibility study and the EIA are yet to be approved and the court is yet to give its order.
They fear that the biodiversity and ecology of the rain forest will face adverse threats due to the disposals of wastes triggering pollution. These may put the trees, bushes, fish and water in threat while forcing insects, birds and animals move away from their sanctuary.
If implemented, the proposed project, however, would contribute significantly to ease the nagging power crisis in the country as well as pressure on the declining natural gas reserves.
But the negative aspects of the plant are copious too.
With the existence of strict laws to protect the environment and the wildlife, the government has recently decided to declare a part of Poshur and Andharmanik rivers sanctuaries for dolphins.
The project will possibly use deep tubewells to draw water for washing the coal and will certainly push the ground water level down – drawing around 25,000 cubic metres of water every day.
Moreover, it will discharge the used water – relatively hotter and whether treated or not – into the river threatening the availability of drinking water and creatures dependent on water.
The ground water and that of the Poshur would also be polluted by the huge amount of waste produced due to burning of the coal. The liquid waste or sludge contains hazardous arsenic, mercury, cadmium and chromium.
These toxic substances can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage vital organs and the nervous system of people living around the place and the natural resources of the Sundarbans.
Environmentalists say the possible air pollution will certainly be higher than what is anticipated if it uses Indian coal – considered to be of low quality due to the presence of high sulphur in it. The coal of Barapukuria, however, is recognised as a high quality type has less than 1% sulphur.
Moreover, when a typical coal-run power plant uses around 35% of the coal’s heat to generate electricity, the majority of the heat produced will have to be released into the air or absorbed by the cooling water.
A senior official at the DoE said they gave the location clearance upon meeting certain conditions including a complete EIA report. “We won’t accept it if the environmental hazard mitigation measures found not to be satisfactory,” said Md Shahjahan, a technical director.
The issue must be publicly debated and its pros and cons published for drawing opinion, he observed. But, so far, neither of the governments has disclosed any detail information on the project let alone discussing it in public.