Tuesday, January 22, 2019 | ePaper

Sundarbans, Rampal Coal-power Plant and peoples movement

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Professor Anu Muhammad :
We have entered into eighth year of resistance against government sponsored disastrous projects those are threatening for survival of the Sundarban, the huge natural protector and the last of natural big forests in Bangladesh. Along with National Committee,  thousands of people at home and abroad spontaneously have engaged themselves in organising protests that has made signs of new consciousness about nature and devlopment.  
The Sundarbans and the development projects
The Sundarbans located in south-west of Bangladesh , is the largest single tract mangrove forest, and the UNESCO natural world heritage site. Extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, this beatiful forest (literal English for Sundarban) is intersected by a network of tidal canals, creeks and rivers. More than 4 million people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods. This has also been a huge natural safeguard against frequent cyclone, storm and other natural disasters in the country. This is the strongest shield for the people to fight against climate change. Lives and properties of almost 50 million people will be threatened if there is no Sundarban.
A recent World Bank study (November 2017) recognised that 'Mangroves as a natural infrastructure has received increased attention in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.' It also said that 'Bangladesh provides an exemplary backdrop for investigation of coastal protection from mangroves during cyclones, as Bangladesh is the world's most vulnerable country to tropical cyclones (UNDP 2004). Bangladesh was hit by 48 severe cyclonic storms and 49 cyclonic storms between 1877 and 2016, 20 of which recorded hurricane wind speeds during the more recent period of 1966-2016. Bangladesh provides an exemplary backdrop for investigation of coastal protection from mangroves during cyclones, as Bangladesh is the world's most vulnerable country to tropical cyclones (UNDP 2004).
The Sundarbans have been  experiencing many state sponsored harmful intervention from both India and Bangladesh. The Farakka barrage  in India brought salinity in Sundarbans, and irrigation and flood control projects in Bangladesh also created problems for Sundarban. Governments in both countries showed their ignorance and insensitivities about Sundarban, Rampal power plant entered as the worst attack on Sundarban.
From the very beginning, the project has been suffering from serious irregularities. The government had selected a natural wetland and fertile agricultural land for the project. Land acquisition order for this power plant was issued on 27 December 2010 more than two years before the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was done. Before the EIA was approved, the joint venture agreement to set up the power plant was signed between Indian National  Thermal Power Company (NTPC) and Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB) on 29 January 2012. A public consultation was arranged by PDB on 12 April 2013.  The experts, invited in the consultation identified serious problems with the EIA; they rejected the EIA and asked the government to stop all activities before another independent EIA was conducted. However, a week later the final agreement was signed by defying that rejection.
In the meantime, more than 3500 landowning families submitted complaints about unlawful acquisition of their land; the police and local thugs were involved in forceful eviction. Many of them did not get the promised compensation. Nearly 8 thousand families are going to  be displaced in the process; most affected have been the poor people and the minority community. A recent investigative report revealed that, around two-thirds of the land acquired by the government from the locals has been handed over to local leaders and ruling party men. One such leader proudly claimed that they played a key role when the land was acquired for the plant, also stopped the groups of 'bandits' who staged movements and long march against the power plant! (Dhaka Tribune, January 31, 2017)
Moreover, the 1320 MW Rampal coal fired power plant project has become a centre of attraction for other harmful business in and around the Sundarbans. Therefore, it is urgent to scrap the project before it is too late.   
Major risks
Independent experts from home and abroad have pointed out many aspects of serious threat of the project for Sundarbans. UNESCO, South Asians for Human Rights,  Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, among others, have made their independent studies and reached to the same conclusion: the project will be disastrous for the Sundarbans.
Although the Indian EIA guideline 2010 disallows setting up of similar projects within 25 kilometers of ecologically sensitive areas including forests, rivers, and sanctuaries, the site of Rampal coal fired power plant is located on the north of the Sundarbans, only 14 kilometers away from its boundary and within 4 kilometers of the ecologically critical area (ECA).This site is only 2 meters above the sea level; it falls within a tidal delta region which has experienced surge as high as height of 5 meters and witnessed 16 cyclones in the past 25 years.  
The plant will annually consume 4.72 million tons of coal that will be transported to the project site through the waterways of the Sundarbans (nearly 13 thousand tons per day) with serious risk of "coal spillage, ballast water, bilge water, oil spillage, lubricant, and garbage". The current transportation system in the Sundarbans area itself is creating severe sound and water pollution around the forest ecology. The latest accident took place in January when a vessel sunk with 1000 tonnes of coal. This is the latest of series of disasters. The callous response of the government to these accidents increases the risks of coal transportation. (See for details   https://waterkeeper.org/coal-barge-carrying-1000-tonnes-of-coal-sinks-in-the-sundarbans-world-heritage-site/)
To run the power plant, water of the Possur river will be withdrawn (at the rate of 9,150 m3/hour) and discharged (at the rate of 5,150 m3/hour) into it again after use with a varying temperature. Experts warn that this will reduce the oxygen of the water and damage the fish stocks of the Possur river. The rising temperature will also affect the "entire ecosystem and biodiversity of the forest, the marine ecology and the biodiversity of the Possur river would be destroyed, as well as the hydrological characteristics of the river including its salinity front, salinity level, sedimentation pattern, and tidal behavior". Discharged water will also contain a large amount of toxic mercury that will be released from the Plant every year. This mercury will be mixed up with the food chain through water system.       Contd on page 22

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