Man-eating tigers have long provided the best defense for Bangladesh’s Sundarbans National Park, the planet’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Each year between 20 to 50 people are recorded killed within the reserve’s shrinking boundaries (though guides say the unofficial toll could be much higher), striking fear into would-be poachers and anyone looking to carve out more turf in this small, overpopulated country. These days, however, environmentalists are alarmed by a more insidious threat to the park’s future: a massive 1,320-MW coal-fired power plant that’s due to be constructed just 14 km away, in the city of Rampal.
The government insists that the project, a joint venture with India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corp., is needed to bring affordable electricity to one of the poorest corners of Bangladesh amid rising demand and energy costs. But opponents counter that operating a coal plant so close to an ecologically critical area will devastate waterways and vegetation that support a range of extraordinary wildlife, from river dolphins to the iconic royal Bengal tiger. In a low-lying and already flood-prone country, there are additional fears that without the natural buffer the mangrove offers, people will be even more vulnerable to severe weather.
“No sane person in the world would agree to this project,” says Kallol Mustafa, an engineer and member of a newly formed protection committee.
To bolster their case, critics are quick to point to a coal-fired plant of similar size that was constructed in 1979 in Fayette, Texas, with pledges from authorities that damage would be negligible on the area’s agriculture. The authorities were wrong: in 2010, scientists reported that the roughly 30,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emitted by the plant each year was killing vegetation across the state, provoking a public outcry that has since pressured the Texas power authority into taking steps to shut the plant down. The proposed plant at Rampal, by comparison, is projected to discharge some 52,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually.
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Some broader concerns over projected emissions were acknowledged in a government-sponsored impact assessment published in January. But the report classified the region as “residential and rural” rather than ecologically critical, lowering the bar for emission levels deemed permissible by the state’s Ministry of Environment and Forest. Critics say this decision has been compounded by lack of transparency on fundamental questions surrounding the project, such as who will ultimately benefit from the power that is generated, and how waste and processed water would be treated to reduce pollution.
At the same time, there is anger over neighboring India’s willingness to help bankroll an environmentally dubious power project in Bangladesh after falling short at home. In recent years, India, which is home to about a third of the Sundarbans forest, has seen two major coal power plants halted in the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh because of more strictly enforced legal barriers and large protests. “It is hypocrisy. They were stopped in their own country so they are violating the law in other countries,” says Moshahida Sultana Ritu, an economist at the University of Dhaka.
Azizur Rahman, the Rampal project’s first director and now a government consultant, dismisses the notion that national laws have been flouted for political reasons. He says oil- and gas-powered electricity is simply too costly, leaving no alternative to coal for future energy security, and insists “there is no [outside] pressure — the Indian government follows its own guidelines, and we follow ours.” A team of experts approved the project after thorough tests, and details of their findings and the terms of the agreement are available to anyone who formally requests them, he says. “We must control all the pollution, in keeping with the standards of Bangladesh.”
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Yet given Bangladesh’s lackluster environmental record, there are plenty of skeptics. Designated water sanctuaries are threatened by rampant shipping, and — according to a recent study by the Dhaka-based Soil Resource Development Institute — logging, shrimp farming and other forms of human encroachment have shrunk the forest by nearly 50,000 hectares over the past decade. Meanwhile, the government has approved a shipbreaking yard on the river that forms the Sundarbans’ eastern border, effectively book-ending the forest with industrial projects. For a troubling preview of what may be coming, environmentalists cite the coastal yards near Chittagong, where toxic runoff from beached supertankers continues to poison local communities.
This week, protesters are making a 400-km march from Dhaka to Rampal in a bid to draw greater attention to what’s at stake. Abdullah Abu Diyan, a conservationist and veteran guide whose uncle founded the first Sundarbans tour company back in the 1970s, says despite the enthusiasm many people have for the reserve — born out by a steady rise in domestic tourism — there’s still a general lack of awareness over the reserve’s role as a protective barrier and environmental asset in a haphazardly developing country.
“It’s the only patch of forest left in Bangladesh that you can truly call a forest,” he says. “If it goes, we will have generation after generation that will not care after the environment because you only care about things that you can touch, feel and love.”