The 21st century has seen the growing crisis of energy, restricted by limited resources.
This entails sensitive handling of all the problems; every mechanism involved in the production of power needs to be as environment-friendly as possible. Now more than ever, we need to convert and adapt our plans and ideas in compliance with the nature. So the proposed “Rampal Coal-fired Power Plant” project near the Sundarbans could be given a second thought.
The Sundarbans, the largest Mangrove forest in the world, covers the most of the 17.5% forest area of Bangladesh. Although 60% of this forest is in Bangladesh (the remaining 40% is in India), the forest area has reduced to about one-third of the area measured 200 years back. Geographically, the Sundarbans is located by the Bay of Bengal, to the South of Bangladesh, from where all the cyclones and tornadoes approach this disaster prone country. In 2007, the category-5 cyclone Sidr had damaged 40% of the forest and killed about 10,000 people. Had the Sundarbans not been there, the death toll would have easily rose to 3-4 folds of the present figure. But the ever-resilient Sundarbans had revived and rebuilt itself from the devastation. Not just this once, but time and again, the Sundarbans have taken the brunt of such natural calamities and protected our country from unthinkable consequences. The Sundarbans is the only homeland of the Royal Bengal Tiger, which is on the list of the endangered species of the world now, with their population dwindling faster than our calculations.
The proposed 1320 megawatt coal-fired power station (a joint project with India) in Rampal is to be built within 9 to 13-kilometre radius of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite repeated objections from various national and international communities, including the UNESCO itself. However, the Bangladesh Government claims to have planned to build it 14 kilometres to the north of the forest, while the Department of Environment (DoE) approved the project, if it’s built outside a 25-kilometre radius of the outer periphery of the forest- which is one of the 50 preconditions given by the DoE. This ginormous project will require 4.72 million tons of coal to be imported per year, which is to be carried in 59 freight ships, each having 80,000 tons of coal, to the bank of the Poshur river. The past times have seen instances of spilling oil in the rivers of the Sundarbans multiple times. In 2014, 350,000 litres of oil was spilled into the Shela river and it spread over 350 square metres of the river, entering into other rivers and canal networks in a protected mangrove area, which is the home to the rare Irrawady and Ganges dolphins. Not just that, the plant will extract 219,600 cubic metres of water from the Poshur river everyday and discharge the treated water into the river again. All of this this will increase the temperature, decrease the rainfall, induce acid rain and seriously affect the trees, plankton and small populations of small fishes and dolphins, violating various laws including the Ramsar Convention. The frequent human interventions in their lives will have a price for it.
Moreover, the acquisition of 1834 acres of land (mostly agricultural land) for this project from the local people has left them job and shelter-less. Although there have been promises to employ these people within the project, the scopes of employment for these people are still not sufficient. Alongside that, these people are being forced to live in exposure to all the pollution the plant will incur to the environment, raising their chances of experiencing health hazards and cancer.
While the coal-fired plants are strongly discouraged all over the world today by the environmentalists; and Canada and France have even banned such factories for the interest of their environment, our country is killing its only forest, its lung, to build one. In 2008, the Indian Government had to abandon their proposed project of a similar power plant to be built 20-km from the Rajiv Gandhi National Park. Ecuador had established its nature as a “legal personality in the same year and so did New Zealand to her Whanganui river in 2016. If the Sundarbans were given this right, the planning authority of this project would have to go through heavy trials undoubtedly.
It’s not that the power plant in Rampal can be the only solution to the power shortage in Bangladesh. Overhauling the existing plants, using renewable fuel like Japan and Netherlands in generating power, and using cheaper machineries and load management systems will provide us with easily accessible electricity with lower investments, much more in quantity as well. While dealing with a region as ecologically sensitive as the Sundarbans, utmost care is a must to say the least. Because we may find other alternatives to power generation, but for Bangladesh, there is no alternative to the Sundarbans.
(This article was written by Sifat Tasfia, an Internatiol Relations major at the University of Dhaka)