It's not worth taking the risk
Spare Sundarbans: Life thrives in the Sundarbans, but only just. The intricately intertwined waterways, the mangrove forest and brackish water, all of them together have created the one and only ecosystem in the world where fishermen (as in the picture) find abundance of livelihood, and a variety of species, including the Bengal Tiger, rule supreme. But with two power plants set to be built and numerous industries waiting to sprout, the future of this unique forest is now hanging by a thread. Photo: File
The consultant was drawing a perfect picture. One could easily get swamped by the plan of how big vessels would offload coal at Akram Point off the Sundarbans, how dust would be controlled and how the community would soon prosper.
As the Rampal 1320 MW power plant will start churning out electricity 14km off the Sundarbans, a unique mangrove ecosystem of the world, the consultant said mother vessels will come with 80,000 tonnes of coal at Akram Point, a spot tucked in the belly of the forest. Every day, the plant will require 10,000 tonnes of coal, which means two to three lighterage vessels will ply the Pashur river slicing through the forest.
The consultant went on to say how a most modern vessel would pump in coal through a funnel into the bottom of the lighterage vessel and how fine water mist would be sprayed to contain any dust pollution. In his view, only 1 percent of the total dust will spill out to the river which will sink to the bottom causing no harm to the forest.
He was describing how 60 percent of the mercury produced by burning coal would be captured and the rest would thinly disperse into air and how sulphur would be kept at a minimum.
Then he came to that indisputable argument that the Sundarbans is vanishing anyway as dirt poor people will always harness the forest resources. The only chance to save it is by setting up the power plants to generate jobs and to have the multiplier effect of mushrooming industries.
However, he put an asterix there. We need a strong monitoring team in place to ensure that everything works as it should be. And then if you just sit back and have a long look, that small asterix turns out to be a big question mark, probably the most important one for the Rampal power plant.
Let's look at what the Sundarbans is. It is a unique mangrove representing an ecosystem found nowhere else in the world. It is the only mangrove system that supports a large cat species -- the Bengal tiger. It is home to some endangered species like the masked finfoot. Its beauty is breathtaking and found nowhere else in the world. In other words, we have a place that no other country has. So if this forest is gone, it will be a loss to the world in general.
This land was left comparatively undisturbed until a plan was hatched to set up the power plant.
The environment management plan that we are talking about is fine -- until you look at who will ensure its execution. And also how these plans are drawn up.
Paul Fishers of International Rivers has bared his soul this way: “As someone with more than 15 years in the field of development cooperation and as a consultant on ESIA projects for some of the major international banks, I have found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with the process. I entered the field seeing ESIAs as a tool that could help bring environmental concerns and local people's perspectives to the forefront of decision-making for infrastructure projects, but over time, have begun to believe the task is often little more than an art of smoothing the way for projects.”
Does the same thing apply to the Rampal plant too? Can we recall one single project in Bangladesh that was cancelled because of an adverse environmental impact report? When a project is conceived and area selected, the impact analysis always finds a way of mitigating any bad outcome, as in the case of Rampal.
But the dreaded reality is like in most developing countries the agencies in charge of protecting the environment in Bangladesh are not the most powerful institutions and cannot always guarantee the application of national laws.
We have thousands of examples before us. We have textile factories that are spewing tonnes of toxic waste into our river system. The environment department is helpless to check it. We have formalin invading our foods. The agencies cannot check it. We have forests logged away everyday. The forest department is powerless. And we have seen the dismal level of environmental standards of our national projects.
So what if the Rampal plant does not keep the promise it makes on environment safety? What if we find an environmental disaster happening? Can they just switch off the plant? The answer is No. A power plant is an essential installation that just cannot be switched off because a few hundred tigers are in peril.
So why are we playing truant with the most unique ecosystem of the world? Why have we to put the forest at potential risks? In the shadow of the Rampal plant, other industries are already invading the Sundarbans, flouting all laws -- shipyards, a smaller private power plant, cement factories and what not -- and nothing could be done about them just as nothing can be done if something goes wrong with Rampal.
These private entities in all likelihood will then follow the Gazipur forest encroachment model. They will slowly and gradually make incursions into the forest, squeezing the Sundarbans.
We understand that the Rampal plant can be operated soundly without any environmental hazard. But it is not worth taking the risk with the world's unique heritage site.