By Jeremy Hance, GNS/Dhaka
Thousands of Bangladeshis will march from Dhaka to the world’s biggest mangrove forest next week in protest at plans to build two coal-power plants on the edge of the World Heritage-listed forest.
The organisers of the so-called long march on March 10 hope to persuade the Bangladeshi government to drop its backing for construction of the plants near the Sundarbans, an area of rice paddies, shrimp farms and vast mangrove forests.
“No sensible person will deny that there are many alternative ways for electricity generation,” said Anu Muhammad, an economist with Jahangirnagar University, and head of the march organisers, the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. “But there is no alternative for [the] Sundarbans.”
Both the proposed 1,320 MW Rampal coal plant and the 565 MW Orion coal plant will sit within 14km of the Sundarbans, a 10,000sq km (3,860sq miles) forest listed as both a Unesco World Heritage site and a Ramsar-protected wetland. The great forest is split between Bangladesh and India, but the bulk of its lies in the former.
Activists fear that the coal plants will slowly destroy the Sundarbans - already under threat from forest fragmentation and overpopulation - due to air and water pollution, changes in water quality and increased boat traffic. The Rampal coal plant alone will take 219,600cubic metres of water every day from the Passur river, potentially changing the salinity and temperature of the water on which mangroves depend.
The government estimates that the Rampal coal plant will require approximately a shipment of coal every day through the ecosystem’s winding, shallow rivers. Critics say this could increase chances of a catastrophic spill, a concern brought home in 2014 when an oil tanker spilled 75,000 gallons into the fragile ecosystem. For days, locals were left to fight the toxic spill with little more than pots, pans, spoons and sponges.
The government contends that the coal plants will have little to no impact on the forest, saying they will use the latest technology to mitigate pollution.
“We see no reason why this project would destroy the Sundarbans, as alleged,” said Ujjwal Bhattacharya, managing director of the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC), which is running the Rampal coal plant. The BIFPC is a joint company between India and Bangladesh’s national power companies.
Bhattacharya added that the new coal plant is based on “stringent” environmental guidelines and follows Bangladeshi law.
The Bangladeshi government also argues that the coal plants are necessary to reduce poverty in a country where around a third of the population lacks power.
“This project will usher in economic prosperity in the Rampal area … which will reduce dependency of the local population on [the Sundarbans],” said Bhattacharya. “This will rather help the government … to save the Sundarbans.”
While most officials are sticking to the government line, Bangladesh’s finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, admitted last month to reporters that the coal plant would have “some impacts obviously,” adding that the boats carrying coal on a daily basis will “substantially affect the flora and fauna there”.
Activists note that this is a coal plant that could never be built in neighbouring India, which has a law on the books that coal plants must be at least 25km from the edge of any
Miha Mizra, a local researcher and activist, said that these projects are indicative of the Bangladesh government’s “one track obsession over high GDP growth as the standard of progress”. She calls this “a very shallow idea of development which is merely growth based, consumption driven, and energy obsessed” and accuses the government of viewing Bangladesh’s poor and its forests as just “collateral damage that is expected to be sacrificed”.
The collateral damage could also include Bangladesh’s last population of tigers, which are found in the Sundarbans. A recent survey found only 106 tigers surviving in Bangladesh’s side of the forest, far fewer than expected. Bangladesh was one of 13 tiger-range countries that pledged in 2010 to double the world’s population of tigers within 20 years, but so far its own population has continued to fall.
Other threatened species in the Sundarbans include two river dolphins and an endemic bird, the masked finfoot. Overall, researchers have documented more than 1,000 species in the Sundarbans - and that’s not including insects.
Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis depend directly on the Sundarbans forest and its waterways for their livelihood, from fisheries to honey production. The forest also provides a vital buffer against the cyclones that routinely hit this part of the world. Muhammad calls it a “natural safeguard … for nearly 40mn people.”
Despite its vocal stance on the international stage on tackling climate change, Bangladesh is aggressively turning towards coal. The Rampal and Orion coal plants are just two of at least a dozen planned coal plant projects around the country.
Hasina has pledged to increase Bangladesh’s coal power by 15,000 MW by 2030, raising Bangladesh’s percentage of coal power from 1% in 2010 to 50% by 2030. Currently, the country gets the bulk of its energy from natural gas. Activists like Mizra have an uphill battle ahead of them. A long march against the Rampal coal plant three years ago - which attracted some 20,000 people - failed to dissuade the government. Construction on that project is expected to begin this year.
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