“Sundarbans and Rampal do not fall in a line. Sundarbans needs to be protected.Md Serazul Islam (45), Harinagar, Shyamnagar.
Our lives are intertwined with the forests. We would die if the forests die.”
Honey collector, fisher and member of a Community Patrolling Group that protects the forests from theft.
Sundarbans Mangrove Forest
The Sundarbans mangrove forest is the world’s largest contiguous block of mangrove forest and the world’s largest coastal wetland. Around a quarter of a million people depend directly on the forest and its waterways for their household income, and 3.5 million rely on it for their lives and livelihoods more generally. It is a critical source of subsistence foods, medicines and building materials.Ecotourism and the sale of key products – including palm fronds, honey, fish, oysters and snails – support local livelihoods. The Sundarbans is also a natural buffer against cyclones and flash floods originating in the Bay of Bengal, providing protection for some 40 million people.
This vast wetland is home to such an extensive range of species, including many that are endangered, that it is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Notable species include the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger, Ganges river dolphins, Irrawaddy dolphins and river turtles.
Rampal coal-fired power plant: A disaster waiting to happen
Bangladesh and India are building a vast 1,320 MW coal-fired power plant at Rampal, just 14km north of the Sundarbans, as part of a plan to produce 50 per cent of Bangladesh’s electricity in eight coal-based power plants by 2030. Construction involves forest clearance, shipping and dredging, dust and water pollution (including because ships frequently capsize), disrupting fish migration and emitting substantial quantities of greenhouse gases.
When in operation, the power plant is expected to have extensive negative impacts on air and water quality, riverine biodiversity, the accumulation of pollutants up through the food chain, and noise levels. For example, in spite of claims that cutting-edge technologies will be used, there is no treatment plan for filtering or treating various gaseous pollutants, which are collectively responsible for acid rain, destruction of crops and ecosystems and climate change. They are also linked with asthma, bronchitis and damage to people’s nervous systems.
Rampal will also be based on imported coal which will have to be transported directly by ship through the mangrove forest’s waterways. The environmental impacts of this are expected to be stark – shipping accident statistics for the last five years are a telling indication of what is yet to come.
Impacts to human health
Dust particles, fly ash, and solid and liquid waste will also pose serious health hazards to workers and people living in the area. The plant will generate 0.94 million tonnes of ash, containing various toxic metals which are likely to cause serious damage to the environment, potentially impacting the whole region through the circulation of polluted water. The company assigned to build the plant, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), is frequently accused of fly ash spillage. The most recent incident took place in the Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh causing severe environmental damage and serious social tension.
Impacts to water
Rampal will not follow the internationally accepted best practice of not discharging polluted water into rivers. This will change the temperature and velocity of the water system in the Sundarbans. In addition, the discrepancy between the volume of water drawn from the shallow Passur river and that discharged back into it means that the river will lose 4,000 cubic metres of water per hour. The pipe drawing water from the river will be so large that it will be able to suck in fish, dolphins, turtles and other water species. Collectively, these impacts will affect fish species, dolphin habitats, plant species, navigability, salinity, silt flow and tide in the Sundarbans.
Community resistance and human rights abuses
Local communities have already experienced human rights abuses. Land acquisition for the project started in 2011 and 4,000 families have been displaced. A significant part of the affected people have complained that they were forcibly evicted and their houses were burned down. They were never consulted and no prior informed consent was obtained. Minimal compensation at a fraction of the market value was paid to some landowners (who also had to pay bribes to receive the money). 1,000 landless families received almost nothing.
Because so many different kinds of people were affected, they found it hard to organise resistance, but a committee was formed. However, the project authorities, led by the local MP and law enforcement agencies, led a reign of terror and committee members were intimidated and coerced and a series of false cases lodged against them. In 2013, a five-day rally and 400km march, just before the launch of the power plant project, were brutally suppressed.
“We won’t leave our land, if needed, we would shed our blood”.Shushanta Das (52), Khulna, small family business and rice farmer
Campaigners trying to defend the Sundarbans continue to be harassed by pro-government actors, and some receive death threats. The police respond to their protests with guns, batons, water cannons and tear gas.
The government of Bangladesh is resolutely ignoring local, national, regional and international concerns about the Rampal Power Project. The Prime Minister’s Energy Advisor has claimed that the controversy is “not based on facts”, and the governments of India and Bangladesh are pressing on with construction.
Rampal is on the verge of turning into a development disaster. Even if the government operates the Rampal plant with supercritical technology, only 8 to 10% of the pollution will be controlled.
To protect the Sundarbans forest, in line with Bangladesh’s commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention, the Bangladeshi government should:
- Immediately suspend Rampal, banning future exploration and the use of fossil-fuel based energy within 20km of the forest as an Ecologically Critical Area.
- Fish and dolphin sanctuaries must be protected, and the Ramsar Guidelines and UNESCO checklist followed strictly.
- Reconsider its energy options nationally, given the overwhelming evidence that coal is a dirty, polluting and climate damaging fuel.
- As one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, Bangladesh should be working towards implementing the commitment already made by its Prime Minister, as a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) in UNFCCC COP 22 in 2016: that Bangladesh will become completely reliant on renewable energy by 2050.
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For more information contact:
FoE Asia Pacific Regional Facilitator
FoE Asia Pacific Communications Coordinator
*Cover photo: Police manhandle an activist from the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, at Shahbagh in Dhaka, January 2017. © New Age/Bangladesh.