Unesco has made it clear that no large-scale industrial or infrastructural development should be allowed to proceed in the vicinity of the Sundarbans before Bangladesh carried out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for its south-west region.
In a report uploaded yesterday to its website on decisions made at the 41st session of its World Heritage Committee earlier this month, it asked for submission of the SEA report to the World Heritage Centre (WHC) as soon as it was available.
Unesco's decision was contrary to what Bangladesh's delegation had claimed after returning from the session held in Poland.
On July 9, briefing newsmen about the outcome of the session, Prime Minister's Energy Affairs Adviser Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury said the government would continue building the Rampal power plant and do an SEA alongside as per Unesco's request.
But in reality, the UN organisation has given Bangladesh until December 2018 to implement recommendations made by a UN monitoring mission for protecting the Sundarbans before it could start building the power plant.
The government has been allowed time until December 1 next year to report on the conservation of the world's largest mangrove forest to the WHC. And the UN organisation would examine the conservation situation at the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in 2019.
On July 6, when the 41st session was in progress, a Bangladesh foreign ministry release said the World Heritage Committee of Unesco had withdrawn its objection to the setting up of the plant at its current site near the Sundarbans.
In his press brief, Tawfiq-e-Elahi had said the government would do necessary dredging to ensure adequate water flow into the Sundarbans.
The Unesco yesterday said it had requested Bangladesh to put in place a management system for shipping to minimise negative impacts, including from associated activities such as dredging. It reiterated its request to Bangladesh to undertake the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for any future dredging of the Pashur river.
It welcomed Bangladesh's move of not approving the Orion power plant and phase-II of the Rampal power plant in the Sundarbans area.
It, however, noted with concern that sea level rise, salt intrusion and reductions in fresh water flows were posing a threat to the Sundarbans' ecosystem and that the area was particularly vulnerable to impacts from these threats.
It emphasised on the importance of trans-boundary cooperation between Bangladesh and India in preservation of the Sundarbans and urged Bangladesh to fully implement the recommendations made by a Unesco mission last year in relation to ensuring adequate freshwater inflows to the mangrove forest.
Welcoming the development of a draft “National Oil Spill and Chemical Contingency Plan” (NOSCOP), the Unesco requested Bangladesh to ensure adequate provision for funding and human resources for the implementation of the plan once it was adopted, and to provide further information and data on the monitoring of long-term impacts from recent shipping incidents involving spills of hazardous materials in proximity to the Sundarbans.
The Unesco website also mentioned that the UN body had taken note of the Unesco mission's concerns about the likely environmental impacts of the Rampal coal-fired power plant on the Sundarbans arising from air and water pollution, a substantial increase in shipping and dredging, and additional removal of freshwater from an already increasingly saline environment.
It requested Bangladesh to ensure that these impacts were comprehensively assessed as part of the SEA and adequate technological measures were put in place to mitigate these impacts.
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, for an estimated cost of $1.68 billion.
A joint-venture company styled Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Ltd (BIFPCL) had been formed to implement the project.
The Rampal project is 14km from the Sundarbans. There has been growing concerns at home and abroad over the power plant's impact on its ecology.
India is providing 80 percent of the cost as loan, repayable over a period of 30 years, at one percent interest. Bangladesh has offered the land.
The Sundarbans was included in the World Heritage Site list in 1997.