Under Threat: B’desh Coal Plant May Spell Disaster for Sunderbans
The Sundarbans is home to many key species, including tigers. (Photo: iStock)
The Sundarbans is home to many key species, including tigers. (Photo: iStock)

Under Threat: B’desh Coal Plant May Spell Disaster for Sunderbans

Last week the UNESCO World Heritage Committee released a report calling for the relocation of the Rampal Power Project in Bangladesh. The project has been mired in controversies since its inception and here we take a look at the state of play.

The Background

The Rampal Power Project is a proposed 1,320 MW super thermal coal-fired power project in Bangladesh. The project is a partnership between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board – the two entities entered into a joint venture in 2012 called the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Co. Ltd (BIFPCL).

But the plant poses a threat to one of the world’s most ecologically diverse places. It’s set to be built in Bangladesh’s Khulna district, just 65 km from the fragile Sunderbans ecosystem.

Bestowed with magnificent scenic beauty and natural resources, [the Sundarbans] is internationally recognized for its high biodiversity of mangrove flora and fauna both on land and water […] The Sundarbans provides sustainable livelihoods for millions of people in the vicinity of the site and acts as a shelter belt to protect the people from storms, cyclones, tidal surges, sea water seepage and intrusion.
UNESCO
The winding rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. (Photo: NASA)
The winding rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. (Photo: NASA)

What do the Supporters Say?

The supporters of the plant argue that only around 70 percent of the Bangladeshi population has access to electricity, making power production a priority for the country. After all, given how many things (education, health and information technology for example) are dependent on energy access, electricity is practically a human right at this point.

Additionally, the government has assured that all necessary safeguards will be taken to mitigate its environmental impact. A recent BIFPCL statement notes that:

All, including human beings, the Sundarbans and its bio-diversities, Pashur River, birds and fishes are totally safe from this power plant […] Modern ultra-Super Thermal Technology would be used in the plant, which would prevent emission of harmful dark smoke and ash. While transporting to the plant the coal would be covered. So water or air will not be polluted. The water will be processed through improved technology. No polluted or hot water will be discharged to the river.
Coal plants release heavy levels of planet-warming greenhouse gases and are among the worst forms of pollution in the world. (Photo: iStock)
Coal plants release heavy levels of planet-warming greenhouse gases and are among the worst forms of pollution in the world. (Photo: iStock)

What Do The Critics Say?

But critics say the project is a recipe for disaster. Globally, such plants have been associated with air and water pollution, with the additional risk of coal and oil spills associated with transporting the coal for the plant.

Just look at the numbers – the plant is estimated to need around 13,000 tonnes of coal daily and will produce as much as 7.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. The mangroves are important not just for their livelihood and biodiversity impacts but also as a carbon sink at a time of climate change – by one estimate, they are able to soak up to five times more carbon than a similar-sized tropical rainforest.

The mangroves provide protection for the region’s biodiversity, and absorb significant levels of atmospheric carbon. (Photo: Sarangib/Pixabay)
The mangroves provide protection for the region’s biodiversity, and absorb significant levels of atmospheric carbon. (Photo: Sarangib/Pixabay)

Under India’s Central Environment Ministry classifications, this plant would be extremely dangerous for the environment. And there is a precedence for concern. A few years ago, monsoon waters washed ash from a thermal power plant in West Bengal, killing local biodiversity up to 30 kilometres away.

Plus, the coal is likely to be imported, raising the risk of transportation accidents – just recently in 2014, a tanker accident in the Shela river in the region spilled thousands of gallons of oil in the waters.

Activists have been calling for the project to be relocated and for the Sunderbans to be placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

A crocodile rests in Bangladesh. (Photo: Marufish/Flickr)
A crocodile rests in Bangladesh. (Photo: Marufish/Flickr)

The UN Report’s Conclusions

Last week’s UN Report declined to list it as a site in danger, but the Report had several strong comments on the site. It called for the Rampal project to be cancelled and relocated and commented that:

  • The project had the potential to cause “irreversible damage” from coal ash, wastewater, waste ash, shipping and construction activity related to the plant.
  • The threats identified to the site had not been adequately addressed in the project’s EIA and that the plant was not applying the best technology or the highest standards; and
  • The project had not assessed the overall combined impact of all the construction activity or planned for an integrated mitigation and avoidance of the impacts.  This lack of a comprehensive management plan was especially worrying given the area’s vulnerability to climate change and the fragility of its ecosystem.
A rainbow over Dobanki island in the Sundarbans. (Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/bonjongol/">Kingshuk Mondal</a>/Flickr)
A rainbow over Dobanki island in the Sundarbans. (Photo: Kingshuk Mondal/Flickr)

Stalemate

The issue is unlikely to be resolved quickly. The project has strong backers at a governmental level in Bangladesh and India and the reality of power generation is not one that governments can avoid.

It’s important, however, that projects in fragile ecosystems take a good look at impacts and investigate alternative methods of power generation that have minimal impact. Destroying an area that has evolved over millions of years for short-term benefits is likely to be counter-productive on every level.

(Shalini Iyengar is an environmental lawyer at Faculty at the School of Law, Environment and Planning, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology)

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