This is an expanded version of an article that ran on Yale e360 on October 29th, 2013: A Key Mangrove Forest Faces Major Threat from a Coal Plant.
Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Photo by: Steve Winter/National Geographic and Panthera.
On October 22nd Bangladeshi and Indian officials were supposed to hold a ceremony laying the foundation stone for the Rampal power plant, a massive new coal-fired plant that will sit on the edge of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. However, the governments suddenly cancelled the ceremony, instead announcing that the project had already been inaugurated in early October by the countries’ heads of state via a less-ornate Skype call. While the governments say the change was made because of busy schedules, activists contend the sudden scuttling of the ceremony was more likely due to rising pressure against the coal plant, including a five-day march in September that attracted thousands.
“The march started from the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka with nearly 5,000 participants but ended up at [near the Sundarbans] with over 20,000 people gathering after five days,” Mowdud Rahman an engineer with Southeast Asia Renewable Energy People’s Assembly (SEAREPA) told mongabay.com, adding that the “historical” march was “the first time we have seen that Sundarbans lies in every Bangladeshi’s heart.”
Opponents contend that the 1,320 megawatt project could devastate the Sundarbans, Bangladesh’s largest forest and the nation’s last stronghold of the tiger. They argue that toxic pollution, water diversion to the plant, and heavy coal barge traffic could leave the Sundarbans an increasingly degraded ecosystem, threatening the livelihoods of half a million people who depend directly on the great mangrove forest.
“No sane person in the world would agree to this project,” Bangladeshi activist, Kallol Mustafa, told TIME Magazine in September.
However, the Bangladeshi government has responded vociferously to allegations that the coal plant will injure the Sundarbans.
“[The Rampal coal plant] will not have any negative impact on the environment. Sundarbans is our safeguard [against natural disasters] and no power plant will be set up jeopardizing the Sundarbans,” declared Bangladesh’s Power Secretary Monowar Islam. The government has dubbed those opposed to the plant as employing “propaganda.”
Protestors at the Long March. Photo by: Nusrat Islam Khan.
Still, Bangladesh is consistently rated as among the world’s most vulnerable countries to global warming, with both the government and experts warning that the low-lying country faces rising sea levels, intensifying extreme weather, water scarcity, food insecurity, and potentially millions of climate refugees.
“Bangladesh is already a global hotspot for tropical cyclones and other climatic events and is highly vulnerable to increased intensity of storms and droughts that will result from climate change,” Bangladesh’s Minister of the Environment and Forests, Hasan Mahmud, said last year. “Two thirds of the country is less than five meters above sea level and vulnerable to coastal inundation and salinity intrusion, which we are already experiencing.”
Despite this, Bangladesh is taking a sudden turn toward coal power—the most carbon-intensive energy source—even as it rightly scolds rich nations for their outsized-role in creating global warming.
The Rampal coal plant, which has produced the most opposition and press in Bangladesh, is actually only one of at least a dozen proposed coal plants for the country by the current administration under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Taken together, these projects are a part of an ambitious government strategy to increase electricity generation to 20,000 megawatts by 2021 for the energy-starved nation. But activists contend there are other ways to produce energy that won’t threaten the Sundarbans or exacerbate climate change.
Coal buddies: India and Bangladesh
The Rampal coal plant is not just for Bangladesh. First conceived in 2010, the project is a partnership between the Bangladesh Power Development Board and India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which will share fifty-fifty ownership of the plant as well as the electricity it produces, although the NTPC is only fronting 15 percent of the cost. Critics contend that despite being a joint project between India and Bangladesh, it’s Bangladesh that will face the environmental and human impacts.
Mangroves in the Sundarbans. Photo by: Pranabesh Das.
“Coal is big business in India, and no doubt there are powerful interests at play,” says Ashish Fernandes, an expert on coal with Greenpeace India. “If Bangladesh is locked into a coal-dependent energy paradigm, companies like NTPC will make significant profits, at the cost of [Bangladesh’s] people and environment.”
Built just 14 kilometers from the edge of the Sundarbans, the Rampal coal plant would actually violate Indian law that declares that power plants must be set back at least 25 kilometers from forestland. However, in a recent press note, the Bangladeshi government contends that the 14 kilometers is a “safe distance.”
“[India] wants to destroy [the] Sundarbans in Bangladesh part,” local journalist Sushanta Sinha told mongabay.com. He argues that not only will India gain cheap energy from the plant without the environmental drawbacks, but also that the degradation of Bangladesh’s Sundarbans will only heighten the attraction of the same forest across the Indian border.
Like the Rampal coal plant, the Sundarbans mangrove forest is shared between Bangladesh and India. Around 80 percent of the forest lies within Bangladesh, while the rest is in the Indian state of Bengal. The Sundarbans—both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Ramsar wetland’s site—covers an impressive 10,000 square kilometers today, and despite once being considered a wasteland by British colonists, the Sundarbans is hugely important to locals who have depended on it for fisheries, wood, and other bounty for millennia.
“[The Sundarbans] plays a significant role in the national economy (3.4% of national GDP) and it is the largest source of forest products in the country,” explains Abdullah Abu Diyan a local environmentalist and guide. “This forest generates large-scale employment and livelihood opportunities during the harvest season of thatching material, honey, bee-wax, fish, crustacean, and mollusk.”
But, the human toll of the coal plant has already started: a number of families, from an estimated 4,000 in total, have already been forcibly remove to make way for the plant. The land they inhabited, mostly shrimp farms and rice paddies, will soon be converted into an industrial site.
Family of Tajuddin Ahmed. Ahmed has just lost his land to the Rampal coal plant. Photo by: Nusrat Islam Khan.
Not surprisingly, this massive mangrove forest (about the size of Lebanon) is home to a wealth of species. Biologists have to date catalogued 330 plant species, over 270 birds, 208 fish, 42 mammals, and 35 reptiles in Bangladesh’s last great forest. Many of the species are endangered, including both the Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) and the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris); the masked finfoot (Heliopais personatus), a water bird; Heritiera fomes, an important mangrove species that’s used for timber; and of course the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris).
“Sundarban is the last remaining habitat of Bengal tiger [in Bangladesh] with no possibility of relocation through corridors,” says Diyan. The Sundarbans are home to over 10 percent of the world’s wild Bengal tigers, about 270 individuals. Three years ago, Bangladesh was one of 13 tiger nations that pledged to double wild tiger populations by 2022. But conservationists say the coal plant could undercut the Sundarban population.
“If the Sundarbans is adversely affected, the tigers will likely be as well,” notes Karolyn Upham a conservationist with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who works in the region.
But environmentalists contend that the coal plant could cast a pall over the forest as a whole, not just the tiger. Mangrove forests are among the world’s most important ecosystems: they act as fish nurseries, biodiversity havens, and carbon storehouses. Moreover, in an age of worsening climate change, mangroves provide buffers against worsening cyclones and rising seas.
But, according to the government, the Rampal coal plant will suck up 9,150 cubic meters of water from the river every hour and run it through a desalination plant. Since mangroves depend on a mix of fresh and salt water—often termed brackish—environmentalists not only fear that water levels in the Passur river will run low, but also that the blend of fresh-and-salt water could be disrupted, dooming swaths of the Sundarban’s mangroves.
“The power plant’s proposed location is on the bank of Passur River, which is one of the only two rivers that bring fresh water to the Sundarbans,” explains Diyan. “Any change in Passur river’s quality might be extremely harmful for the entire ecosystem.”
Furthermore, water dumped back into Passur River will be up 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the river water, threatening aquatic species.
Stork in the Sundarbans. Photo by: Pranabesh Das.
Coal-fired power plants also spread a toxic menagerie of chemicals into both the air and water, including arsenic, mercury, lead, nickel, and radium. The government says the plant could discharge up to 52,000 tons of sulfur a year, which, depending on the type of coal burned, could lead to acid rain in the Sundarbans and surrounding regions.
“Mangrove ecosystems are known to contain acidic soil, and any disruption may lead to leeching of the acid into the water causing major disaster to the aquatic fauna including the fisheries,” adds Diyan.
The Rampal coal plant will also require around 4.72 million tons of coal every year to burn, which the government says will mean approximately a ship a day carrying coal through wildlife-rich waters. Coal spilling off the barges may lead to possible water contamination, while the ships will also cause daily noise pollution possibly putting species at risk, including dolphins. Just last year, Bangladesh set aside three new areas of the Sundarbans as Wildlife Reserves for the dolphins.
“The water of the Sundarbans and surrounding areas will be affected by discharging cooling water, effluents from the ships, and leaching water of the coal from ships,” environment scientist, Abdullah Harun Chowdhury with Khulna University, who conducted his own assessments on the impact of the Rampal coal plant, says.
But the government of Bangladesh, which did not respond to repeated queries from mongabay.com, has repeatedly argued that the coal plant will have no environmental impact.
“[The Rampal coal plant] would be built using the latest ultra super critical technology, so it would not affect environment of Sundarban,” Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, an adviser to the Prime Minister, said in September.
Chital deer in the Sundarbans, an important prey species for the Bengal tiger. The deer depend on the mangroves for survival, while the tiger hunt the deer. Photo by: Pranabesh Das.
He added that, “the matter has to be understood with a scientific outlook, not emotion. [Opponents’] criticism is not based on information and technological knowledge. Our decision is based on real terms, and not emotions.”
According to a recent press note from the government the plant will only burn “high-quality imported coal,” and “emissions of carbon, sulfur, fly ash and several other sorts of air pollution will be kept at a minimum level to avoid having any adverse impact on the environment.”
In the same note, the government said the coal plant is “very important to the interest of the people.”
But opponents remain unconvinced.
“While there is no ‘good’ location for a coal plant, situating one in or near a unique and already stressed ecosystem like the Sundarbans is inexcusable,” says Fernandes with Greenpeace-India.
In January of this year, the Bangladeshi government released a 676-page Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Rampal coal plant undertaken by the Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services. However, instead of alleviating concerns, the EIA raised new contentions. For example, the EIA argues that the possibility of acid rain from the Rampal coal plant is “very low” due to mitigation methods and the type of coal burned. But activists say such assurances are not good enough.
“Acid rain… is such a dangerous hazard [that] before deciding to establish a coal based power plant near Sundarbans, one needs to be ensured that there is zero possibilities of these kinds of hazards,” notes Rahman.
Some scientists have also blasted the government’s EIA for downplaying threats and spreading misinformation. The government assessment treats the Sundarbans as a “residential and rural area” and not an “ecologically critical area.” That designation change allows the government to impose lower thresholds for pollutants, including sulfur and nitrogen.
Logging boat in the Sundarbans. Photo by: Pranabesh Das.
“It defies logic to treat the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world…as a residential area,” economist Anu Muhammad with Jahangirnagar University told The Independent newspaper of Bangladesh.
“[The] government is trying to misguide people by false information,” contends journalist Sushanta Sinha.
Furthermore, critics say the government had already tacitly approved the coal plant before the EIA was even written or submitted to the Environment Ministry for approval. In 2010 the government had already obtained 1,834 hectares (4,532 acres) of land for the project, an acquisition that has already pushed some locals off their ancestral land.
“If we look at the chronology of events it would be clear that the EIA process was merely an eyewash, used as an instrument to rationalize a predetermined project,” says Rahman.
But the government EIA is not the only scientific document to investigate the impact of the Rampal coal plant. Before the release of the official assesment, environmental scientist Chowdhury, conducted his own research. Over several years, Chowdhury and his team took water and air samples, monitored biodiversity, and worked with the local community creating an independent EIA. In the end, they reached conclusions vastly different from the government’s.
“Most of the impacts of [the plant] are negative and irreversible which can’t be mitigated in any way,” concludes Chowdhury’s report.
For the love of coal in a warming world
Last month, Maplecroft, a UK-based global risks analysis company, dubbed Bangladesh the world’s most vulnerable nation to climate change. With a massive population—still one of the densest in the world—and widespread poverty, the people of Bangladesh are also expected to suffer gravely as the sea spreads inland. According to projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 17 percent of Bangladesh could be engulfed by the sea as waters rise.
The government denies none of this. Last year, Hasan Mahmud, the Minister of the Environment and Forests, stated succinctly, “in Bangladesh climate change is not a threat; climate change is the reality.”
In fact, many have pointed to impacts already occurring in Bangladesh as illustrative examples of the upheaval climate change could cause worldwide.
Honey collectors in the Sundarbans. Photo by: Kaiser Ahmed.
And this sentiment has been echoed by the very top of the Bangladeshi government. At the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009, Prime Minister Hasina said “the refugees caused by climate change increase day by day. The rising sea levels and rising temperatures are destroying the habitat of fish and the lives of our fishermen.”
And she hasn’t changed her position in recent years. Six months ago, Hasima told a summit at the Community Climate Adaptation summit in Dhaka that “we need to act now [on climate change] without delay […] This needs to be addressed at the highest priority.”
Still, Hasina remains a staunch defender of the Rampal coal plant, and her administration is the driving force behind Bangladesh’s sudden investment in coal. Until recently, less than five percent of Bangladesh’s electricity production came from coal with the country producing most of its energy from natural gas and biomass.
Diyan says that the people of Bangladesh have “yet to receive anything from the government justifying their actions in line with climate change.”
The government contends that the Rampal coal plant—and the others—will produce badly needed power for Bangladesh’s 150 million people, about half of whom still lack electricity.
But activists note that in a country with plenty of sunshine and wind, there are many good alternatives to carbon-heavy coal.
Increasing efficiency at existing gas plants could add 2,500 megawatts in one year—nearly double the energy production of the Rampal coal plant—according to engineer, Mowdud Rahman. In addition, he says, Bangladesh should look to biogas, mini-hydroelectric, wind, and solar for its energy needs. Currently, the Bangladesh government has set a goal of producing 5 percent of its energy with renewable by 2015 and 10 percent by 2020.
“Unfortunately this only seems to be a juicy target with no substantial attempt to make it happen,” says Rahman. “Policy makers seem short in innovation but viciously interested in this plant.”
The long march
In September concerned Bangladeshis took their opposition to the streets. Tens-of-thousands participated in a five-day march from the capital to the Sundarbans; thousands of others supported the initiative through social media, according to the march’s organizers, The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports.
“There is no way that government can deny this huge protest and continuous campaign,” says Rahman.
Aerial view of long march. Photo by: Nusrat Islam Khan.
At the end of the 400-kilometer long march, activist leaders released the “Long March Declaration,” which demanded that the government cancel the project by October 11th.
“We have frequently said there are alternatives for producing electricity, but there are no alternatives to the Sundarbans,” the declaration read.
But to date, the only thing the government has cancelled is the coal plant’s inauguration ceremony. Protestors took to the streets again on the 11th, and this time were halted by police.
“Now is the time to show a common wisdom and make the right decisions for a greener and more habitable world,” Prime Minister Hasina told the world back in 2009 at the Climate Summit, adding, “Future generations will judge us for the choices we make today.”
Tiger tracks in the mud. Photo by: Karolyn Upham/ZSL.
A local inhabitant of Rampal who lost his land and claims he wasn’t compensated fairly. Photo by: Nusrat Islam Khan.
Fishing boat in Sundarbans. Photo by: Navid Bin Sakhawat.
Protestors. Photo by: Nusrat Islam Khan.
Mangroves in the Sundarbans. Photo by: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan.
(02/15/2012) Bangladesh has declared three new sanctuaries to help protect the south Asian river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Split into two subspecies, the Ganges River dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica) and the Irrawaddy River dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor), the new sanctuaries will benefit both. Listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the south Asian freshwater dolphin has disappeared from much of its habitat. Already Asia has its other freshwater dolphin species: the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) was declared functionally extinct into 2006 after a survey of the Yangtze River failed to find a single individual.
(12/09/2009) According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Bangladesh is the most vulnerable nation to extreme weather events, which many scientists say are being exacerbated by climate change. From 1990 to 2008, Bangladesh has lost 8,241 lives on average every year due to natural disasters. In addition, rising sea levels also threaten millions of Bangladeshis.
(10/31/2013) Global carbon dioxide emissions hit another new record of 34.5 billion tons last year, according to a new report by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, but there may be a silver lining. Dubbing 2012 a “remarkable year,” the report found that the rate of carbon emission’s rise slowed considerably even as economic growth continued upward.
(10/28/2013) China’s largest city and one of the world’s biggest, Shanghai, is set to ban coal burning in just four years, according to a new Clean Air Action Plan. The city-wide ban on coal burning is one effort among many to get Shanghai’s infamous smog under control as well as another sign that China has begun to take its pollution problems more seriously.
(10/08/2013) A campaign to persuade investors to take their money out of the fossil fuel sector is growing faster than any previous divestment campaign and could cause significant damage to coal, oil and gas companies, according to a study from the University of Oxford. The report compares the current fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has attracted 41 institutions since 2010, with those against tobacco, apartheid in South Africa, armaments, gambling and pornography. It concludes that the direct financial impact of such campaigns on share prices or the ability to raise funds is small but the reputational damage can still have major financial consequences.
(09/30/2013) Activists have urged the Indonesian government to cancel or reassess plans to build a 148-kilometer coal railway in Indonesian Borneo, claiming the project will be an ‘ecological disaster’ that will destroy watersheds and lead to increased coal exploitation in the region, threatening ecosystems and undermining local government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
(09/18/2013) The Malaysian government is taking another look at building a hugely controversial coal-fired plant in the Bornean state of Sabah, a proposal that was thrown out in 2011 due to a large-scale grassroots movement. The 300 megawatt coal plant would have been built in Lahad Datu on the edge of a wildlife reserve and the state’s renowned coral reefs. Reportedly, the government is now considering building the same plant only further south in Tawau, which also lies on the coast.
(11/10/2009) A group of nations especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change have released a declaration calling for developed countries to keep CO2 emission below 350 parts per million (ppm) and to give 1.5 percent of their gross domestic product to aid developing nations in adapting to the myriad impacts of climate change.
(03/31/2009) The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has discovered an unknown population of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin in Bangladesh numbering 6,000 individuals. The dolphins were found in the freshwater areas of the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Prior to this discovery, the largest known populations of Irrawaddy dolphins numbered only in the hundreds.