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A death sentence for the Sundarbans

  • Published at 07:19 pm July 27th, 2016
  • Last updated at 07:22 pm July 31st, 2016

Development and sustainability have been hot topics around the world and, recently, in Bangladesh. The government of Bangladesh seems to focus on the development narrative while often undervaluing the issues of society, people’s will, ecology, bio-diversity, and the overall scheme of things; mainly, the environment and its climactic impact on Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country that has weathered many a natural disaster and, due to its people’s resilience, we have pieced together our broken dreams in pursuit of a golden future. The Rampal coal-fired power plant project that the government is planning to set up near the Sundarbans will endanger our precious forest, World Heritage site, announced by UNESCO in 1997, comprising approximately 345,947 acres. The size of the Sundarbans has diminshed over the years. It was originally measured to be of about 16,700 square kilometres. Due to the encroachment of population, destruction of the forest cover, and timber, the size of the Sundarbans has dwindled to about one-third its original size. It is now estimated to be about 6,000sq-km, of which about 1,700sq-km is occupied by waterbodies. The forest lies under two forest-divisions, and four administrative ranges. Presently, 80,062 acres of the Sundarbans have been declared as three wildlife sanctuaries and was brought under the UNESCO World Heritage Site banner in 1997. These wildlife sanctuaries were established in 1977 under the Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) (amendment) Act, 1974. The mosaic of islands in the Sundarbans is home to many exceptional terrestrial, aquatic, and marine habitats; ranging from micro to macro flora and fauna. The Sundarbans is not only a site of importance for Bangladesh, but is a site of global importance due to the fact that it is home to globally endangered species including the Royal Bengal Tiger, Ganges and Irrawaddy dolphins, estuarine crocodiles, and also the critically endangered endemic river terrapin (Batagur baska). It is the only mangrove habitat in the world for the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) species. UNESCO documentation mentions that a population of 400 to 450 tigers remains, while a recent newspaper article puts the number closer to 200 in our part of the Sundarbans. As part of the world’s largest delta, the composition of the Sundarbans is created by the sediments deposited by three great rivers: The Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, and covering the Bengal Basin; the land mass has been molded by tidal action, resulting in a distinctive physiology, and any artificial changes to this land mass will have sustained and visible impact, further endangering the eco-system. According to UNESCO, the Sundarbans is the only remaining habitat in the lower Bengal Basin for a wide variety of faunal species. UNESCO states: “Its exceptional bio-diversity is expressed in a wide range of flora; 334 plant species belonging to 245 genera and 75 families, 165 algae, and 13 orchid species. It is also rich in fauna with 693 species of wildlife which includes 49 mammals, 59 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 210 white fishes, 24 shrimps, 14 crabs, and 43 mollusks species.” The delightful dream environment of the Sundarbans is now being punctured by the construction of a 1,834 acre coal-fired power plant. Orion Power has already taken 200 acres in the same location and Confidence Cement has also taken some land in the vicinity in the process of constructing their own facilities. The very homes of these endangered species is under threat, and it is hard to fathom why the government is so gung-ho about building the plant. This site belongs to Bangladesh and is an asset to all of humanity. Needless to say, a plant 14 kilometers from the Sundarbans will significantly alter the bio-diversity of the area. With such a large power plant, other support infrastructure will spring up in the vicinity, bringing more clutter and noise, puncturing the peace and tranquility of the surroundings. Ships with 10,000 tons of capacity are supposed to ply approximately 50-plus days between Akram Point, an inward location upstream, through the Passur River, which is noted as the breeding ground for the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. At Akram point, these massive hauls of coal will be offloaded to smaller vessels, adding to the risk of coal spillage and exposing toxic coal dust released into the environment. According to documented information shared by MS  Siddiqui, the Rampal plant alone would generate “940,000 tons of toxic residue (called coal ash) each year.” Coal ash has heavy metal ingredients like arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium. The economic impact and proper cost-benefit analysis is hard to arrive at, but estimates show that due to this power plant, 1,285 tons of rice and 561.41 metric tons of fish will be lost from the area, let alone other negative economic impact. He goes on to mention that over 8,000 families are permanent residents of the allocated land, of which 7,500 families live on the mentioned farming and fishing. The climatic impact shall set in 10-15 years from now, and be so substantial that the reversal process, even after spending billions of dollars, will not be possible. The development paradigm is affecting our thought process so much that we are compromising with reason and rationality. Undoubtedly, the nation needs to address issues with facts, figures, and scientific analyses. Walking with emotion and ego can destabilise the environmental fabric of the Sundarbans; Bangladesh stands to lose its richest treasure trove, which attracts millions of tourists. Invoking the fiery spirit of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, we entreat our current prime minister to re-assess the project, understanding the deep-rooted scar that this project would etch into the history of Bangladesh and humankind at large. I ask her most humbly, would her government want to be remembered as the ones who destroyed the Sundarbans? We invite the government to construct an alternative energy source from the same project area, since the land has been acquired. We invite our readers to have a firm perspective on this issue of national and international importance, and pledge their support by convincing the government to cancel the coal-fired power plant in lieu of alternative competitive options in solar and/or wind turbine based power plants. Let us save the Sundarbans and show once again that we are a nation that fought valiantly during the War of Liberation. Our fight now is intellectual, and based on reason and rationality. Let us forge ahead and bring people’s power to this engagement. Let us collective say “no” to Rampal.