Abdur Rahman Khan To the utter defiance of the concerns expressed by the UN agencies and the environmental groups at home and abroad, the government of Sheikh Hasina in a determined move proceeding ahead with the construction of Rampal coal-based power plant ignoring the ecological threats in Sundarban mangroves, the UNESCO world heritage site. Following a series of protests and demonstration programmes organized by the environmental groups, civil society and the political parties, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has agreed to reduce the project to 50 percent from its original plan to construct four units of 660MW of power plants based on coal. Now they are constructing two such units to produce 1320 MW (660MW+660MW) electricity. According to project plan, the 2X660 MW Rampal Power Plant of Bangladesh-India Friendship Coal Power Company (BIFCPCL) would require using 13,000MT of coal per day. The entire quantity would be imported either from Australia or Indonesia and would be transported by barges through Possur channel to power plant jetty. The plant would also require limestone as feedstock for sulfur reduction plant known as FGD. About 1,500 MT fly ash recovered from plant will also be transported daily from the plant through river route to nearby cement plants. In addition their plan to construct coal-based power plant, the government also permitted private companies to set up industrial ventures, all red-type and harmaful to the ecology of the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest on earth. However, that initiative to set up 190 more industrial plants under red-type category was temporarily stopped due to court’s intervention following the writ filed by the environmental groups against the government plan . However, the danger warning signal has been hoisted last week by the UNESCO that it is going to propose Sundarban as the “World Heritage in Danger.” in the 43rd session of its World Heritage Committee scheduled to be held in Azarbaijan from June 30 to July 7. International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN), the official advisor on natural world heritage to UNESCO, has recommended for inclusion of Sunderbans on UNESCO’s ‘world heritage in danger’ list. The recommendation was made due to ongoing construction works of the coal-based power plants and approval of over a hundred industrial projects to be constructed near the largest mangrove forest in the world. The World Heritage Centre of the Unesco, which enlisted the Sundarbans as national heritage in 1999, opposed the construction of Rampal power plant since its inception. Though the government always claimed Rampal coal-based power plant would not pose danger to the Sundarbans, the Unesco was never convinced. As agreed with the UNESCO in the 41 session in 2017, the UN body assessed that government did not make enough progress about undertaking Structural Environment Assessment (SEA) for the southwest region of the country to ascertain potential danger to the Sundarbans. Rather the government allowed construction of two additional power plant on the Payra river and numerous other industrial projects in the periphery of the Sundarbans in the Southwest region and also conducting dredging in the river which could impose threat to the mangrove forest, states UNESCO document on this issue prepared last week.
Following a series of correspondence between the government and World Heritage committee, the Unesco concluded that “little progress has been achieved to address the significant threats” to the Sundarbans. “All activities are taking place in the absence of the SEA,” states the statements. However, State minister for power, energy and mineral resources Nasrul Hamid said, ‘The power plants were developed after taking clearance from the environment ministry. It is their duty to know whether the plants would be harmful for the forest or not.’ Giving his reactions to The Holiday, Dr Sheikh Faridul Islam, Chairman, Save the Sundarbans Foundation said that it would be disgraceful for a nation to see Sundarbans degraded as ‘world heritage in danger’ list. The obligation of the government appears to be towards neighbouring India that provides funding for the project, Sheikh Faridul Islam said adding that it might be important from the geo-strategical viewpoint of India ; but Bangladesh government must look into the interest of its own county, own people and its only one world heritage site, the ecological life-line of the country. He said the UNESCO did not accept the EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) report as prepared by a government department on Rampalproject . They rather asked the government to prepare a Strategic Impact Assessment (SEA) report by engaging a third party. The UNESCO centre also requested the government to invite them to assist to prepare a set of corrective measures to secure the Sundarbans from any potential environmental danger. Ecological issues Meanwhile, environmental concerns have been raised by the experts on the issue of transshipment of huge amount of coal along the Possur river, the main channel of the Mogla port. According to government’s EIA report, transportation of coal from source country to Rampal power project would be carried by the river way through the Sundarbans. The coal will be transported first from source country to Akram point in Sundarban using mother vessels of 80,000 DWT. Then it will be carried by shallow draught coal carrier of 5,00 to 10,000 DWT to Mongla port. The environmental experts fear that the impact of coal transport throughout the year in Sundarbans would cause destruction to the entire ecosystem in the region. In this process, water column would be polluted due to oil spillage, coal spillage and other waste discharge. The coal carrying vessels plying along the Pasur River will generate waves which will cause erosion of shore. Moreover, noise generation, beaming of lights etc would disturb the nocturnal animals . The ballast water, oil spillage and coal discharge might also affect growth of Mangrove plants. It further poses a major risk on the existence of marine species particularly the endangered dolphin species along with saltwater crocodiles. Though the government EIA report has tried to justify the Rampal Coal power plant in the vicinity of Sundarbans, also pointed out that leakage or accidental release of hazardous chemicals stored water treatment plant may affect the soil and water quality in the area. Other physical constraints Mongla Port, the second gateway of Bangladesh is the most eco-friendly sea port of Bangladesh, situated at the confluence of Possur River and Mongla Nulla, approximately 71 nautical miles upstream from the Fairway buoy at the Bay of Bengal. Total 33 ships can take berth in the port( in the jetties , buoys and anchorage) at a time. Mongla Port was designed for an average 8.3m draft ship. But after the construction of the port, the depth in several areas of Possur channel reduced significantly and regular maintenance dredging is required to provide adequate depth facility alongside the berths, un the approaches to berths and the Southern Anchorage areas. Mongla Port Authorities has implanted three capital dredging projects between 1990 and 2014. But after every capital dredging, the back filling rate was found very high and it remains a big challenge for the very existence of the port itself. The navigability of possur channel is also suffering mainly due to high sedimentation along the main stream. Sedimentation occurs mainly in dry season when the downstream flow velocity reduces significantly. The Port Authorites observed that the afrea of tidal prisom has reduced significantly after the construction of polders and sluice gates at the mouth of khals (canals ) flowing into Possur River. The major findings of the navigability study on Possur river reveal that the river has navigation problem for last two decades mainly from Chalna to Chilla Bazar. The available water depth at Fairway Vuoy is about 20-25 m. The depth gradually decreases as ships approces to the river channel due to draft restrictions at the outer bar. The shoals along the outer bar in the southern section of 20 km restrict entrance of larger vessels abopve 20,000 DWT. Meanwhile, the most critical sections of the river has been identified from Mogla port to Rampal power plant ,hsrbour area and outer bar area. Due to depth restriction at outer bar, vessels with a maximum draft of 8.5 m can arrive upto herbaria anchorage. Under such physical restraint, the shipping experts and bidders alike suggest relocating the transshipment sites beyond the jurisdiction of Mongla Port Authority, The cost of alternate solution would be lower than the main solution, they opined. TIB calls for a halt to Rampal power, similar projects in the area Meanwhile, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has expressed concerns over the future of the Sundarbans, as Unesco recently expressed plans to declare the mangrove area as a “at the 43rd session of its World Heritage Committee . The session is scheduled to be held in Ajarbaizan “The proposal to declare the Sundarbans as a World Heritage in Danger at the 43rd session of its World Heritage Committee proves that projects like the Rampal Power Plant and other such projects has put the Sundarbans at risk,” TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said in a statement released on Monday. The statement also called for a halt to all activities related to the establishment of coal-based power plants in Rampal, Taltoli and Kalapara and said immediate steps should be taken to implement the action plan adopted by the Unesco World Heritage Committee. Saying the government’s commitment to achieve sustainable development was contradictory to projects like Rampal, Dr Iftekharuzzaman said all necessary measures must be taken immediately to save the Sundarbans from destruction. NCSS supports UNESCO Move The National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (NCSS) has endorsed the UNESCO Draft Decision to Place the Sundarbans on the List in Danger. NCSS Convener Advocate Sultana Kamal said in her reaction: “It is unfortunate for us, the people of Bangladesh, that the Sundarbans World Heritage Site is in so much danger. But we all are aware that the draft decision was based on sound science and undeniable evidence carefully reviewed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sultana kamal pointed out that the coal-based power plants under construction at Rampal (Maitree), Taltali (Barishal) and Kalapara (Payra) do not have state of the art pollution control technologies or waste disposal systems. These plants would put the Sundarbans at risk for severe air and water pollution. “Our coalition of over 50 environmental and justice organizations supports the draft decision and encourages the World Heritage Committee to adopt it unchanged during its upcoming meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan. The world needs to understand that the numerous coal plants and heavy industrial development currently being constructed within 50 kilometers of the Sundarbans endangers the tigers, river dolphins and fisheries of world’s largest mangrove forest, and will exacerbate climate change. We need to come together to stop these threats to our home and heritage.” the NCSS convenor colcluded. The NCSS statement said, Bangladesh and every signatory to the World Heritage Convention—must do its part to save the Sundarbans and avoid catastrophic climate disruption. We must stop building coal fired power plants and revert the tens of billions of dollars earmarked for dirty fossil fuels to clean and healthy renewable energy instead. Solar and wind energy is the key to a sustainable and survivable future for Bangladeshis and the wildlife of the Sundarbans.”