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25 November, 2015 00:00 00 AM
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Can Sundarbans be saved if there is no Rampal Plant?

Dr. Ansarul Karim
Can Sundarbans be saved if there is no Rampal Plant?

The Bangladesh Sundarbans, a unique mangrove ecosystem of the world and also the largest single mangrove forest of the world along with the Indian part has become the focal point of debate by a group of people within the country and also concern of the some environmental organization outside the country. Biodiversity conservation significance of the Sundarbans ecosystem is unequivocal. It is the only remaining mangrove forest in the world which support Sundri as dominant forest type and only mangrove forest in the world which provide habitat for majestic cat the Royal Bengal Tiger. Its protective function during the climatic disaster is also vital for the country. It is one of the largest natural carbon sequestration landscape of the country. Realizing the significance of conservation of this ecosystem part of the forest was declared as World Heritage site under UNESCO World Heritage Convention   by the Government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her first tenure in 1997. With this the nation is pledge bound to protect, conserve and transmit this natural heritage to future generations.
History of the diminishing resources of the Sundarbans goes back to the Mughal period and continued to the British period. The then British realized that the resources of the Sundarbans are not in exhaustible as some of their predecessor thought. So the forest was put under a forest management system known as sustained yield harvesting procedure at least for the major crops the Sundri, Gewa, Goran and Golpata. Due to the ravages of Liberation War the then put a temporary moratorium on extraction of timber resources from the Sundarbans. A detailed forest inventory was made in 1983 by British ODA which revealed dramatic depletion of Sundri and other tree resources. Final moratorium on timber harvest was put in place in 1988. But this could not stop timber harvest from the Sundarbans particularly Gewa was harvested for Khulna News Paper Mill and in the name of removal of top dying Sundri tree a huge quantity of matured and immature Sundri tree were extracted for several years.
Besides such unsustainable official harvest from the ecosystem the Sundarbans is subjected to a number of natural and manmade threats. The natural threats are die back disease of the Sundri, increased inundation of the forest floor and salinity increase due to sea level rise, increased damage due to cyclone and tidal surges etc. These impact of the natural threats  are exacerbated by the human activities such as abstraction of freshwater from the rivers upstream of the Sundarbans particularly due to the Farakha Barage in India, siltation of the rivers due to change in tidal flow regime as a consequence of the embankment construction upstream.
Added to these factors construction of industries and Mongla Port activities also contribute to the pollution load of the rivers connected to the Sundarbans. Now a days Sundarbans has become the “Den” for dacoits and muggers who are engaged in poaching tigers and extracting money from the Sundarbans users. FD people alone are helpless in such a situation with limited power and resources
At present about 500 maritime ships are handled annually by the Mongla Port.  Besides, numerous river craft, launches and steamers also ply along water ways and discharge waste oil spillage, bilge washing, into the water and create pollution in the marine environment. It is expected that Mongla Port will play a vital role in handling import-export cargo for Nepal and Bhutan in futures. Thus increasing the maritime ship handling many times than present.
The Port is also implementing a massive dredging operation of the Passur River within the Sundarbans for improvement in port’s operational capacity. This will involve handling of about 103 lakh m3 of dredging spoil which will increase the suspended solids in the river water affecting the pelagic fishes and other aquatic organisms of the rivers within the Sundarbans.
A group of industries including Cement Factory, LPG Plant, and Oil storage silos are engaged in the vicinity of the Sundarbans.  It is learnt that a company has bought land to set up a ship-breaking yard in the same area. Mongla BEZA (Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority) and Mongla Export Processing Zone have been extending facilities to investors. Industrial plots for sale in the Mongla area are being advertised online ‘For Ship-Yard, Ship-Breaking Yard, Oil Tanker, Cement Factory, LP Gas Plant and Other’s Industries. With this industrial development the Sundarbans will face much more ecological risk than the much debated Rampal Power Plant situated about 14 km upstream of the Sundarbans.
Proposed Rampal Power Plant is a coal based thermal power plant that will be established about 14 km upstream of the Sundarbans. Establishment of this Power Plant is vehemently opposed by a group of people on the ground that this plant will cause irreparable damage to the Sundarbans Ecosystem giving examples from antiquated Power Plant in USA or some theoretical perception of the analysts.

The extent of criticism has been so politicized by those group that they have been mocking with the commitment of the present prime Minister who for the first time took steps to declare the Sundarbans as World Heritage Site and whose efforts and policy to save environment is recognized by the world body UNEP and decorated her with the top UN award “Champion of the Earth” 2015 in the “Policy Leadership” category. Some of the environmental organizations outside the country also joined the chorus without any formidable scientific analysis of the threat posed by the proposed power plant.
It is no denying that conventional coal based Power Plants are among the dirtiest industry causing health and environmental hazard. The criticism in case of Rampal Plants has been based on the examples from the conventional sub critical technology. The critiques undermine the scientific improvement in efficiency of the technology development in coal based Power Plants. The efficiency of the coal based power plants increased from about 5% in 1990 to around 45-50% now a days with Ultra Super Critical Technology which is said to be used in case of Rampal Plant. The higher the efficiency the lower is the requirement of coal and lower wastes it produces. Emissions control measures at the plant with the selective catalytic reduction device for nitrous oxide, flue-gas desulfurization for sulfur dioxide, activated carbon injection for mercury and pulse-jet fabric filter baghouse for particulate matter are all proven technologies that can drastically reduce the pollution load of the Power Plants. Selection of technology alone is no guarantee that the plant will be operated environmentally sustainable manner. It will require sound Environmental Management System at the entrepreneur level and monitoring capacity of the regulatory agencies which are weak in case of Rampal Plant entrepreneur BPDB and other government and private entrepreneurs. So the problem is not to cut the head to get rid of the headache but to manage properly the cause of the headache.
The EIA report prepared for the Rampal Power Plant has miserably failed to analyze the cumulative environmental impact of the proposed power plant and the ongoing industrial and port activities within the project area based on appropriate scientific baseline data. It has also failed to assess the management capacity of the concerned impacting agencies to address potential mitigation options required to remove and reduce all those negative environmental impacts. Establishment of such a mega project requires acquisition of lands that results in displacement of people from their homestead and their productive assets thus affecting the present and future generational livelihood of the population of the project area. Loss of productive assets and livelihood due to the land acquisition remains the most critical issue that has not been properly addressed in the Rampal Plant or for the Power Plants proposed to be established in Maheshkhali. Present Land Acquisition Act (LA Act 1982) is a black law copied from the colonial regime. Under this law only the legal title holder of the land is entitled to get monetary compensation to be decided by the Deputy Commissioner of the district where the project will be located. In some mega projects like Bangabandhu Bridge, Padma Bridge the law was enacted to be given cash compensation and rehabilitation grant to affected people. In case of present Coal based Power Plants, land acquisition and rehabilitation Plan could not go beyond the country legal provision and corrupt practices as pointed out by TIB.
However, a landmark decision has been taken in the cabinet meeting on 2nd March 2015 with the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina which approved the draft of a policy, titled 'Fund for Social Development of the Project Area of Coal-based Power Plants and Operation Policy" for the welfare of the affected people of the coal-fired power plant project areas. According to this policy three paisa per unit of electricity to be generated from the Power Plant Operation to finance the proposed Social Development Fund. Whether tariff of 3 paisa per unit is sufficient to cover the social rehabilitation of the affected people and who are the target people to be benefited and how is not clear. Appropriate legal and institutional arrangement is also yet to be adopted but it is a turning point in the Bangladesh development history that tries to righting the historical injustice in the involuntary land acquisition for mega development projects. It is expected that the program shall cover the whole affected community and both direct and indirect losses of income opportunities to be benefited from the project operation in the long run. It is also a promising approach that can provide equitable development, sustainability, and smooth project implementation. Critiques have failed to appreciate these positive developments of the government for the reason known to them only. Some of the analyst recommended to push this environmental and social burden to Maheshkhali as if the environment, life and property of the 5 lakh inhabitants of the island have no value to them. Electricity is recognized as the most vital of all sorts of development. Availability of necessary services for the citizen is also dependent on secured supply of electricity. Bangladesh has no other choice but to rely on coal for its energy security. Use of coal for generation of electricity cannot be underestimated or ignored. Moreover the criticism that if the proposed Rampal Plant is stopped, it will secure the ecosystem integrity of the Sundarbans has no scientific basis. The Mongla Port Activity and the expected industrial development just few hundred meters away from the Sundarbans will pose much more danger to the Sundarbans than Rampal Power Plant. Protection of Sundarbans from the industrial and shipping activity lie in the implementation of an appropriate Environmental Management System of the Mongla Port, Industries both private and public and monitoring capacity of the DoE and the Forest Department.
Sundarbans has so far been managed under a false notion of sustained yield of forest resources by the forest department. With the present moratorium put on the resource extraction from the Sundarbans its revenue earning has drastically reduced. It is now running partly on donor funding projects for its operational activities. Once donor fund is exhausted whether the government can pull sufficient resources for sustainable management of the ecosystem is uncertain. It is desirable to adopt Polluters pay principal for the sustained management of the Sundarbans. Not only Rampal Power Plant but also Mongla port and other industries established in the vicinity of the Sundarbans should be levied for protection of the Sundarbans.
Sundarbans Ecosystem is to develop a management structure appropriate to the protection need of the globally significant biodiversity site. The present management authority the Forest Department is only a department under the Ministry of Environment and Forest with limited authority and capacity to address the threats being faced by the Sundarbans Ecosystem. The future management and governance structure should address the multi stakeholder interests (local, national and global), authority and capacity to prevent outstanding universal value damaging activities which often require making tough decision and enforcing it.

The writer is a mangrove ecologist and coordinating editor of IPCC guideline on GHG inventory for  the wetlands

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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