The World Heritage Committee of Unesco has withdrawn its objection to the setting up of Rampal power plant at its current site near the Sundarbans, claims the Bangladesh foreign ministry.
The committee, however, requested Bangladesh to carry out Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of its south-west region, including the Sundarbans, before starting the project. Dhaka has agreed to it.
The decisions were made yesterday at the 41st session of the committee in Krakow of Poland. The 10-day session ends on July 12.
In a press statement yesterday, the foreign ministry said the Unesco also “spared the Sundarbans from being relegated to the List of World Heritage in Danger”.
However, the Unesco is yet to issue any statement on it.
Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) was awarded the contract to construct the 1,320MW Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant in Bagerhat's Rampal near the Sundarbans, a world heritage site, at an estimated cost of $1.68 billion. A joint venture company styled Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Ltd (BIFPCL) has been formed to implement the project.
The Rampal project is located 14 kilometres from the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest.
India is providing 80 percent of the financing with one percent interest on the loan payable over a period of 30 years. Bangladesh offered the land.
The Sundarbans was included in the World heritage List in 1997 in consideration of its outstanding universal value as a unique ecosystem.
The 21-member World Heritage Committee decides on whether a cultural or natural site should be put on the World Heritage List, monitors the state of conservation of the heritage sites, and can place a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger if found that the site is not properly managed by the state concerned.
In its statement, the foreign ministry said that in recent years, the World Heritage Committee voiced concern over the state of conservation of the Sundarbans and urged the Bangladesh government to take a number of steps.
In addition to the issue of ensuring adequate fresh water flow into the Sundarbans and preventing poaching and over extraction of its resources, the government decision to construct a coal-based power plant at Rampal came under the committee's radar, the ministry pointed out.
Earlier last year, a Reactive Monitoring Mission from Unesco recommended relocation of Rampal power plant, considering its likely impact on the Sundarbans.
After a long deliberation, the committee endorsed Bangladesh's decision to construct Rampal power plant at its current location with necessary mitigation measures, said the ministry.
The committee also welcomed a number of steps taken by Bangladesh since last year to ensure conservation of the Sundarbans, it added.
At yesterday's session, a delegate from Turkey proposed opening a discussion on the issue.
The delegate said it wasn't clear why the committee is denying Bangladesh sufficient time to complete the Strategic Environmental Assessment as required by the committee's previous decision and why it insists on taking pre-emptive measures by halting all development work in the area without seeing the results of the SEA.
The delegate also noted that Bangladesh provided detailed information on how it is currently managing fresh water flow into the Sundarbans. "The state party [Bangladesh] needs to be given sufficient time to address the complex issue."
A high-level inter-ministerial delegation is representing Bangladesh at the UNESCO meeting. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, prime minister's adviser on power, energy and mineral resources affairs, is heading the delegation.
Tawfiq-e-Elahi thanked the committee members for helping the Bangladesh government in striking an optimum balance between economic development and heritage conservation.
He also assured the committee of Bangladesh's full cooperation in ensuring conservation of the Sundarbans.
The other members of the delegation include Ahmed Kaikaus, secretary at Power Division; M Shahidul Islam, ambassador to France and permanent representative to Unesco; Ziaur Rahman, additional secretary at environment and forest ministry; Raisul Alam Mondal, DG of the Department of Environment; and Khalid Mahmud, chairman of the Power Development Board.