The soon to be built $1.49 billion Rampal coal-fired power plant has generated concern and controversy among the citizens, environmental experts, and government officials in the country and abroad. The main concern being the potential of irreversible damage to the unique eco-system of the world's largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans. Deputy Editor of The Daily Star Sharier Khan talks with State Minister for Power Nasrul Hamid to find out more about the risks and benefits of the plant.
The Daily Star: Do you think the government has done enough to earn public confidence on Rampal especially when the Sundarbans is the main concern here?
Nasrul Hamid: When I joined the power ministry about three years back, I had also initially asked why we took the Rampal project that threatened the Sundarbans. As I gained experience, I realized that I had wrong conceptions. Outsiders see the project in the same way I saw it initially.
One has to understand the project. We have not been able to explain it to people properly. This is why this concern has been created. Proper communication skill is lacking in bureaucracy. We do not properly market our ideas. Specially in the power and energy ministry which is too preoccupied with projects.
But led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, we have taken an initiative to address how to handle public communication better -- especially on development works. We have become engaged in social media. We have a Facebook page and our own website that posts news daily.
We have made big changes in the last one year. We have been active in social media for the last one or two months.
Previously, information on Rampal was made available on our websites -- but it did not get attention. The environment ministry had put up the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report at its website. The environment ministry scrutinized the report for one year.
The critics (of the project) also have a responsibility. They must understand what we are trying to say. Many of them do not do their homework on the technology aspect of the project.
TDS: People do not feel they can take the government seriously on this issue due to a number of reasons. The government had taken many steps including laws and projects on wildlife preservation and the protection of the Sundarbans from the late nineties. But over the years, these steps failed to improve the health of the forest. Now there are industrial plots there. The number of tigers dropped to 105 from 450. Petroleum carrying barges sink in the rivers of the Sundarbans. When the government is failing to uphold its laws and intents there, how can the people trust the government on the Rampal project?
Hamid: In the sixties, the Mongla port used to handle the bulk of coal supplies. Coal was imported and unloaded at Mongla and it was shipped across the country through the rivers of the Sundarbans. Have you heard that the Sundarbans was destroyed by that? Did its water become polluted?
The destruction of the Sundarbans over the decades was not due to coal. From the seventies onwards, governments allowed more exploitation of the forest. Increasing number of tourists is going there. People go there on picnics playing loud music. These are the concerns of the environment ministry. Our ministry's concern is to see if this plant would have cumulative negative effect on the environment.
Technical people understand the project but non-technical people are having a difference of opinion because their concern is of a broad nature.
The plant will emit Sulphur Dioxide (SOx). But how much of it will go into the air is the issue. But they (critics) are not focusing on this. They should see whether the emitted SOx would destroy the Sundarbans or not. They should see whether we can control the emission of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx). They should see whether the ash generated by the power plant would be released through the plant's chimney.
The fact is, coal plants generate these elements. There will be sulphur. But will this sulphur affect the Sundarbans 14 km away? Critics say the plant will release 57 tonnes of SOx every day. Will so much SOx get released to the atmosphere? If this does not happen and the emission level is brought down to a tolerable level, then why are we saying that the Sundarbans will be destroyed? This is what we are trying to tell them repeatedly.
Those dealing with technical aspects have told us that if we follow the specifications then this will be a great power plant and it would not affect the Sundarbans.
So, can we run the plant with the promised technology? Of course! That's why we have appointed a German consultant. We are not completely depending on ourselves because we lack experience in coal power. To get experience we have entered into a joint venture with Indian NTPC. We have taken 50-50 equity. The implementation of the project will be ensured by our own engineers-- the German consultant.
This would not be the only such power plant in the country. We are building a minimum of 15 such power plants. This means there will be at least $20 billion investment.
Using good technology means lower emissions. The people must trust the government in building so many plants. We have taken plans to develop human resources to run so many plants. I have also been in the trainings. I have been to Japan to see ultra-super critical coal power plant. When I entered the plant, I thought the plant was shut off because I could see no smoke from the chimney. I asked about it and they said the plant was running. I also could not hear any noise louder than what you hear in this room when I was near the turbine.
People consider coal as dirty. We cite examples of old coal power plants of the USA. It is not right to compare those plants with the ultra super critical plants.
TDS: But in case of a disaster like the one in the Ha Long Bay in Vietnam (where a coal plant was built close to a world heritage site), what can the government guarantee for the safety of the forest?
Hamid: Disasters happen. But should we stop development works? What happened at Ha Long Bay was a natural disaster. There was an open pit coal mine that was flooded leading to a crisis. This is not applicable to the Sundarbans.
There are 850 brick kilns around Dhaka city. The level of carbon and sulphur emission from these is 1000 times higher than our (planned) power plant because they use poor quality coal and also because the coal is burnt openly without any filters. But did these kill the trees of Dhaka? There are many brick kilns in Mirpur. Did they kill the tigers of the zoo there? I believe, in broader sense, it's the cleanest energy of all.
TDS: This is primarily an Indo-Bangla joint venture; but only Bangladesh has provided sovereign guarantee to secure the loan. Don't you think this looks like India shrugged off its part of the deal and it does not reflect friendship and trust here?
Hamid: In monetary sense, India holds 50 percent equity. The remaining matters are all within Bangladesh. Who would buy the power? Who would control the supply chain? Everything is Bangladesh's responsibility. Then who should guarantee the total funding? Bangladesh should give this.
TDS: The site was chosen by the government out of three potential spots in the same region before the company was formed. It should have been the company's task. All these sites are close to the Sundarbans. Why did the government do so?
Hamid: The site was pre-selected by our experts looking at several issues like human replacement, accessibility to water, nearby port where vessels already ply etc. In Khulna, on an average 60 to 70 vessels ply in the (Sundarbans) water every day. Whereas, we'll use only one and a half vessel (on average) every day. This is nothing compared to the current traffic. The river is 3 km wide here. One vessel plying through such a wide river is nothing.
The southwestern region is one of the most neglected areas. Poverty is most prevalent in Patuakhali, Barisal and the rest of the southern region.
Besides, when the Padma bridge opens, there would be a tremendous surge of activities. There would be a huge number of industries and a rise in power demand. This has been incorporated in our master plan outlining how much power would be needed in the coming years. We need to properly distribute power generation. It would not be cost effective to supply power to Barisal from Matarbari. Therefore, the mega plants have been distributed that way. Matarbari and Maheshkhali would be a hub; Khulna another hub; then more will be in Payra, Rangpur and so on. We are creating a ring all around the country where large plants would be built.
This would make the power system healthy and cost effective in the future.
The Khulna belt will become a major area in the future. Other than the Padma bridge, an airport will be built in Barisal. If you consider (the power demand in the) years 2040 or 2060, a 1300 mw power plant would be nothing. The power demand there will be 5000 to 6000 mw.
TDS: With development, people will then encroach into the forest and make it their property--isn't it?
Hamid: We will take care of the protected areas. We will include nature in our development. Bangladesh is a very small densely populated country. We would not be able to make Bangladesh a carbon-negative country like Bhutan even if we tried but environment is surely a major concern. The public concern over Rampal project has helped us to be more cautious about the technology aspect and other aspect of the project.
(Nasrul Hamid, MP, is the honourable state minister for the Ministry of Power, Energy, and Mineral Resources.)