Bangladesh coal plant will not harm world’s largest mangrove forest, claim officials

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The Third Pole, Sundarbans, Bangladesh

A coal-fired power project on the edge of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, has triggered protests while officials claim it will not harm the fragile ecosystem

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India and Bangladesh are building the coal power plant which will drive massive deforestation and exacerbate river erosion. (Photo by Nusrat Khan)

The 1,320 megawatt Rampal power project, an India-Bangladesh venture slated to start by 2016, will use a proven technology that reduces carbon emissions and will protect the Sundarbans forest ecology, the Indian High Commission to Bangladesh, Pankaj Saran, said earlier this month.

After visiting the project site with an Indian delegation, advisor to the Bangladesh prime minister, Dr Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, said a 300 metre chimney will ensure that the local air is kept clean, and covered vessels that carry the fuel will prevent fly ash and coal dust from spreading, United News of Bangladesh reported.

However, local people and experts are not convinced, even as work goes on at the project site.

At Chalna village on the bank of river Passur close to the project site, school teacher Muhibur Rahman has lost his 15 bigha (4.95 acres) of land due to riverbank erosion.  Erosion is a big problem in the delta, but dredging of the riverbed to make way for coal barges is making erosion even worse. Now Rahman says his school is also under threat of erosion.

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Tajuddin Ahmed and his family had to handover their land to the power company after a long struggle.

The plant will need to import 4.72 million tonnes of coal every year, that translates as a weekly supply by a 80,000-tonne capacity cargo ship. Officials said the coal would be brought to Akram point on the Bay of Bengal and then moved onto smaller barges, 8 to 10 ten of them offloading the cargo from each shipment along the Passur river.

Environmentalists are concerned about this heavy movement along the river, and its impact on riverbank erosion, birds and mammals such as dolphins and crocodiles.

The project itself is located 14 kilometres north-west of the Sundarbans, just 4 kilometres away from the edge of the protected area.

An ecosystem of global importance 

Mangroves are vibrant ecosystems that protect shorelines from storms, winds, and waves and prevent erosion by stabilising sediments with their tangled roots. They keep the water clear and clean by filtering and trapping sediments.

The Sundarbans is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance.  The 140,000 hectare delta at the confluence of three great Himalayan rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, is a labyrinth of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands. The area is home to some 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger, the threatened estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.

The delta is also home to communities who depend on fishing and farming and live in villages largely cut off from the mainland. About 742 hectares of shrimp and rice farms has been acquired for the coal-power station, possibly affecting local food production, officials noted in the EIA report.

Local people, who were fully dependent on their land, are deeply unhappy. Nurul, Mujib, Tajuddin or Jahid have all lost their land. They said they could understand the compulsion of the government and the need for growth, but they did not like the way the land was acquired. A local leader grabbed their land even before the decision to build the plant came about. They now fear massive deforestation will further deteriorate the environment.

“The land allocation had started two years before the EIA –environmental impact assessment – report, which is questionable,” said Professor Abdullah Harun Chowdhuary, an environment scientist at Khulna University.  He said the government failed to do a complete analysis with detailed data collection before signing the agreement for the project in such a sensitive place.

The EIA report, prepared by the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Service (CEGIS) of the Bangladesh Ministry of Water Resources, does acknowledge a series of environmental problems, but argues that the impacts will be minimal and can be offset with effective management.

“During operation, coal dust, bottom ash and domestic waste may also be generated from the plant,” the report noted and suggested a proper environment management plan.  The plant will draw about 9 million litres of water an hour from the Passur river and discharge over half this amount back into the river after treatment and cooling, it added.    “The long term concentration of SOx and NOx (harmful sulphur and nitrogen oxides) may not be significant as the site is located in an area prone to frequent cyclone that may periodically disperse the pollutants.”

Chowdhuary of Khulna University does not share this optimism. “The EIA report of CEGIS is not up to the mark,” he said.   “Even if the environmental management plan is implemented fully and efficiently, damage to Sundarbans will be irreversible.”  The government has refused to consider alternative more suitable places for the power plant, Chowdhuary said.

“It is just an assumption report, not a detail assessment,” said Dr. Nasir Uddin Khan, a UK based environment management specialist. He explained that it lacked the details of equipment, companies and pollution mitigation measures required by World Bank standards.

Manufacturing and power generation are seen as essential to support growth in Bangladesh, and provide a way to reduce high levels of poverty and shed its least developed country status. The country that produced 9,713 megawatts of power in 2013 will need 17,000 megawatts by 2017 and double that figure by 2030.  As gas supplies are expected to decrease from 2017 half the power will be generated from coal by 2030, government records show.

India boosts Bangladesh’s power sector

Collaboration with India contributes to such an expansion of the power sector. A 2011 meeting between the Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh led to an agreement between the Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB) and National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) to develop the Sundarbans coal power station. Work on the project formally started with a video conference between the two prime minsters in October 2013. The low-key event followed a protest march from Dhaka to the project site organised by activists opposed to the project.

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In September thousands gathered for a five-day protest march against the coal power project.

Despite the ongoing protests and hard questions raised by environmentalists, work is moving forward at the project site.