Sunderbans in the firing line
Coal-fired power plants are prodigious polluter of the environment and toxic terror for the people living nearby. Besides greenhouse gases and particulate matter, they produce a host of toxic pollutants – lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc and arsenic, cobalt, manganese and trace amounts of uranium, carbon monoxide, fly ash, bottom ash and volatile organic compounds – which have detrimental effects on human health and the environment. According to the Rainforest Action Network, from the cradle to the grave, coal is a risky business. Each stage in the life cycle of coal -- extraction, transportation and combustion -- presents increasing health [and] environmental risks.”
By deciding to build a coal-fired power plant at Rampal, the Bangladeshi government has embarked on a mission to destroy one of the most ecologically sensitive rainforests in the world -- the Sunderbans. The economic benefits that will result from the construction of the power plant, the prospects of which are in any case highly dubious, cannot compensate for the long term adverse effects it will have on the forest and the local population.
Why do we care about the Sunderbans? We care about the Sundarbans because it provides natural protection against rising sea levels and killer cyclones. The trees of the forest act as a sink for greenhouse gases. They abate flooding and moderate the climate. They also help perpetuate the water cycle by releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. More importantly, the Sunderbans is home to a large number of the world's plant and animal species, including many endangered species. It is also home to many rare plants and animals that do not exist anywhere else in the world.
How will the Rampal Power Plant affect the Sunderbans? The pollutants from the power plant will cause deforestation which will contribute significantly to the total global carbon emissions. Deforestation in turn will reduce biodiversity, cause flash floods, increase soil erosion and disrupt livelihood of millions of people.
The anthropogenic degradation of the environment due to the greenhouse gases emitted from the Rampal Power Plant will have harmful effects on the local agriculture, silviculture, aquaculture and eco-tourism. Other pollutants that will directly impact the ecosystem of the Sunderbans and its surroundings are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and volatile organic compounds.
Acid rain produced by the reaction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the air is one of the most serious types of pollution that will affect the Sunderbans. It will cause foliar damage, impair seed germination, dissolve the nutrients in the soil and wash them away before trees and other plants can use them to grow. Acid rain will also harm the forest's animals and wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem.
The effects directly due to sulfur dioxide are hard to isolate, however, because particulates and moisture are usually present in the same environment and play a synergistic role. Nevertheless, plants will be affected by sulfur dioxide and trees will suffer appreciable damage to their leaves and internal cells.
Ground-level ozone and smog produced through a complex chain of reactions involving nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds will also have harmful effects on the Sunderbans. Ozone is known to damage the leaves of plants and trees as well as the tissues of living creatures.
Mercury, a highly potent neurotoxin and an inevitable by-product of a coal-fired power plant, when released into the atmosphere settles in nearby streams and rivers. It will cause considerable damage to the aquatic ecosystem by polluting the rivers of the region. Mercury will enter the food chain via algae and infect all forms of wildlife, in the rivers and on land, from fish to birds to mammals, whose diet includes fish.
As for the humans, eating fish from mercury polluted rivers can cause severe disability including deafness and blurring of vision, mental derangement, neurological defects and even death. The deadliest episode of mercury poisonings occurred in 1953 among people who ate seafood from Minamata Bay (Japan) into which methyl mercury was released by a chemical factory.
Thermal pollution due to discharge of waste heat into nearby rivers will change the ambient temperature of the water, which could lead to a complete shift from cold- to warm-water forms of life. Whereas such a replacement might cause little disruption to the productivity of a body of water once the adjustment has taken place, in almost no instance would the production of heated effluent be constant for long enough periods to allow either adaptation or replacement to be effective. The effluent will eventually affect not only the aquatic organisms of the Sunderbans, but also the entire ecosystem of the aquatic environment.
Furthermore, thousands of workers driving trucks, operating heavy equipment and barges hauling coal will drive the animals, particularly the tigers, out of their habitats. Also, parts of the forest have to be cleared of trees and plants to facilitate settlements for the workers of the power plant. The cleared area, when exposed to high temperatures, will be paved with hard-packed laterite. Once formed, laterite is almost impossible to break up, and areas that once supported lush forest will, at best, be able to support only shrubs or stunted trees.
Of course, the government's first obligation is to the people. Rampal will surely solve the energy problem, albeit partially. But the truism runs, as fast as old problems are solved, new ones appear. To avoid new problems, we should look to the future with our eyes wide open, rather than narrowly focused on material welfare and convenience. We must be on the side of nature while we dream and scheme, because we are part of nature. To view ourselves as separate from nature is an abstraction which in reality does not exist. Our continued existence depends not just on rice, fish, fowl and cows, but on the continued well-being of all the plants and animals on Earth.
By ignoring the impact Rampal Power Plant will have on the Sunderbans, people in power are portraying nature as an adversary which can be tamed with technology, an adversary against which we must constantly struggle. This is clearly a reflection of their short-sighted, anthropocentric view of the environment; a manifestation of myopia and an abysmal ignorance of the interrelatedness of humans, plants, animals and their environments.
There is still time to take a rational approach to the power shortage problem and chose an alternate site which will have minimal effect on the environment. By doing so, some semblance of the natural world will be preserved. Otherwise, we would be sacrificing the enormous value of a standing rainforest for a short-term economic benefit that will consume much more than it will produce.
Finally, nature not only abhors vacuum; nature abhors human interference too. A true wilderness should be viewed bio-centrically. The forests should be free to burn, free to be blown away by storms, free to be washed away by floods and free to be attacked by insects. These are natural events to which forests are adapted to respond. The new forests that will emerge may be different from the old ones, but that is the way things change in a natural ecosystem.
The writer is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.