Sundarbans, the world largest single tract mangrove forest lies on the Southern coast of Bangladesh and North-east India. This forest is primarily fed by the river Ganges and hundreds of its tributaries, and the total area of the forest is10 000 km2, of which 62% falls within Bangladesh and 38% in India. This mangrove forest constitutes about 51% of the forest area of Bangladesh and contributes about 50% of the revenue earned by the forestry sector of Bangladesh. Sundarbans is famous for its diverse biodiversity, which includes about 334 species of plants, 282 species of birds, 49 species of mammals, 210 species of fishes, 63 species of reptiles, and 10 each of amphibians and molluscs. Several endangered species such as the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), the Gangetic dolphins (Platanista gangetica), and the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) are only found in Sundarbans. In 1992, about 601,700 hectares of forest reserve of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh were declared a Ramsar site. In 1999, 32400 hectares of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh part were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sundarbans ecosystem is at greatest risk due to aquaculture, over exploitation of natural resources, land reclamation, global climate change and low fresh water influx from upstream due to commissioning of Farakkah barrage ( a barrage is a special type of dam consists of large number gates that can be opened or closed to control the amount of water passing into the downstream) by India over the transboundary river Ganges. On top of these anthropogenic pressures, a new threat for this fragile ecosystem is an ongoing coal based power plant ( Rampal power plant) which is to be commissioned in 2018.
Under a bilateral cooperation, in 2010 Bangladesh and India declared a plan to set up a 1320 MW, coal-fired power plant at Rampal, which is very close to Sundarbans of Bangladesh territory. Since then, this decision has resulted in protest from experts, environmentalist groups and the general public. The experts and environmentalist groups claim that the aquatic biodiversity (specially the benthic community) will be at serious risk due to the toxicological effect of the coal based power plant. Therefore, the activists have been organizing press conferences, rallying in the street, and public dialogues on a regular basis. Furthermore, to draw governmental attention, thousands of aggrieved citizens also organized a long march on requesting to safeguard the unique ecosystem from pollution. However, ignoring all of these ongoing protests, the Bangladeshi government has shown its firm determination to implement the project and signed the final agreement with its Indian counterpart on July 12, 2016. This has further fueled the ongoing protests. To handle the protest, recently the prime minster of Bangladesh has stated in a press conference that “A section opposed to development in the country has for some time been indulging in a negative campaign against the Rampal plant and creating fear among people by providing false information about the power plant and related issues. As per international standards, a coal-fired plant should not be located within a 10 kilometer range of a forest.” She also said “this plant in Rampal is located 14 kilometers away from the edge of the Sundarbans and 65 kilometers away from the World Natural Heritage zone and it will not harm the nature as we are going to use the world’s most efficient and environment-friendly technology.” However, the activists have rejected the prime minister’s claim on the no impact of Rampal plant on the Sunderban’s ecosystem and protest has been further intensified.
About 3.5 million inhabitants, mostly living below the poverty level are heavily dependent on natural resources of the Sundarbans. In addition, this forest also provides a regulating ecosystem service as a protective, natural boundary during cyclones, and in the last couple of decades it has protected over 10 million human lives from cyclonic storms. It must be remembered that we need power for economic growth, but not by sacrificing our valuable natural resources. Proper cost-benefit analysis and stakeholder consultations are also essential and required to ascertain the real economic gain from the Rampal project. Therefore, to respect the public sentiment and to avoid the potential deleterious effect on the regulating ecosystem services of Sundarbans, the government of Bangladesh should seriously re-think the Rampal power plant plan.
Photo credit: https://alalodulal.org/2013/08/29/rampal/