Regular power outages are prompting Bangaladesh to build two new coal-fired power plants. The Rampal plant is the furthest along and is scheduled to become operational by 2021.
The plants are planned to be built near the Sundarbans, the world’s largest single tract of mangrove forest, home to tigers, freshwater dolphins, and hundreds of other wildlife species.
Critics ranging from local communities and scientists to banks and UNESCO are critical of the plants’ proposed location near the Sundarbans, which they say will harm the region’s wildlife and human communities.
Bangladesh, regarded by many as the nation most vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change, is on track to construct two coal-fired power plants that critics say are dangerously close to the world’s largest single tract of mangrove forest called the Sundarbans.
A major driver behind these new power power plants is to increase electricity resources for Bangladesh’s 157 million people and achieve its goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2021. Currently, the country produces 8,000 megawatts of electricity but the demand strongly outweighs supply, with regular power outages that last for hours.
“Only 65 percent of people are getting electricity in Bangladesh (excluding those who get three to four hours’ power supply from their solar power systems),” Mowdud Rahman, an engineer and researcher currently based at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, India, told Mongabay. “So to reach an optimal level of power consumption and to support all people, [Bangladesh] needs to generate power.”
The per capita power consumption of Bangladesh averages about 300 kilowatt hours (kWh) while neighboring India’s is 750 kWh and the U.S. is at 13,000 kWh. To increase its power supply, Bangladesh’s government has established targets of 36,000 megawatts (MW) through power plant construction by 2030.
To this end, Bangladesh is planning two coal-fired power plants in its southern region. The project that has received the most attention and is furthest along in its development is the Rampal power plant. It lies 14 kilometers away from the Sundarbans mangrove forest and is expected to be operational by 2021. The more recently proposed Orion power plant is slated to be built just 12 kilometers from the Sundarbans.
Spread out over 10,000 square kilometers, two-thirds of the Sundarbans lines southwest Bangladesh’s coast while the remainder is located in India. Formed at the delta of the Ganges river about 7,000 years ago, the Sundarbans consists of three wildlife sanctuaries, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Ramsar bird conservation area.
The site for the Rampal power plant sits along the Passur River just upstream from the Sundarbans mangrove. Global Forest Watch shows that Sundarbans are host to a Tx2 Tiger Conservation Landscape, which denotes areas that could double the wild Bengal tiger population through proper conservation and management by 2020.The Sundarbans consists of a large tract of mangrove forest straddling the border between India and Bangladesh. The site for the Rampal power plant sits along the Passur River just upstream from the Sundarbans mangrove. Global Forest Watch shows that the Sundarbans is host to a Tx2 Tiger Conservation Landscape, meaning that it could double the wild Bengal tiger population there through proper conservation and management by 2020. Satellite imagery from early 2016 (upper-right inset) shows development proceeding at the Rampal site.
The Sundarbans provides a wealth of ecological and economic benefits to the region, as well as to the world as a whole. The total carbon contained by the mangroves was measured in 2010 at nearly 56 million metric tons, and is valued at a minimum of $280 million per year. The thick wall of the mangroves provides an extremely important natural shield against disastrous phenomena such as tsunamis and hurricanes and the flooding that results from them. These mangroves save Bangladesh and its citizens millions of dollars of land loss and property damages every year, and they help safeguard the lives of the thousands of people who inhabit the region’s coastal areas.
“Bangladesh is already a global hotspot for tropical cyclones and other climatic events and is highly vulnerable to increased intensity of storms and droughts that will result from climate change,” Bangladesh’s Minister for the Environment and Forests said in 2012. “Two-thirds of the country is less than five metres above sea level and vulnerable to coastal inundation and salinity intrusion, which we are already experiencing.”
The Sundarbans is home to nearly 700 animal species and around 340 species of plants. It provides important habitat for endangered Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris), as well as the only two remaining species of freshwater dolphins in Asia – the threatened Irrawaddy river dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), and the endangered Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica). Other species found in the Sundarbans include open-bill storks (Anastomus oscitans), black-capped kingfishers (Halcyon pileata), saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), threatened king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah), endangered fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus), endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), and critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) — to name a few.
Mangroves provide an essential breeding ground for a variety of fish and shrimp and are a valuable source of food and livelihood for the surrounding communities.
“It has been estimated that more than one million people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihood, many of whom work seasonally as fishermen and gather non-timber forest products that include nipa palm, honey, leaves and grass,” according to a 2015 report released by the finance industry watchdog BankTrack.
Many of the word’s mangoves are severely threatened: research finds they’re being cleared three to five times faster than terrestrial forests, and 69 percent of mangroves studied in the Indo-Pacific region had rates of sediment accumulation that were not enough to keep them above anticipated rising sea levels due to global warming. Inland human activities like dam construction were heavy contributors to this phenomenon, and the biggest mangrove deforestation drivers include aquaculture, rice and palm oil production. A UN report highlighted how destruction of the world’s mangroves could have dire consequences for biodiversity, food security and storm damage mitigationa. The economic losses could also be substanstial, with scientists saying the world’s mangroves are worth $194,000 per hectare annually and their destruction is leading a loss of ecosystem services valued at $42 billion every year.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, who gave the COP21 climate summit in Paris a miss, won the United Nations Champion of the Earth award in 2015. Hasina’s government has been rooting for the Rampal coal-fired power plant to be constructed and operational while her party is still in power. The national power policy aims to generate more than 16,000 Megawatts of electricity – or 50 perent of Bangladesh’s total energy capacity – from burning coal by 2030, according to the government’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project.
To this end, the Indian government’s National Thermal Power Company (NTPC) and Bangladesh’s power development board have formed a fifty-fifty venture called the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Limited (BIFPCL). While NTPC will be responsible for the plant’s construction and operation, the profits and the electricity generated from the 1,320-Megawatt plant will be split equally between the two partners. Coal for the plant will be imported from Indonesia, Australia or South Africa.
Development of the Rampal power plant is currently underway. The Public Relations Manager for the BIFPCL, Anwarul Azim, told Mongabay that the main contract for the engineering, procurement and construction of the Rampal plant has been signed, and the process of financial closure is coming along.
“Meanwhile, initial infrastructure activities of access road, office cum residential complex, store, boundary wall, security watch tower, gate, etc. are in progress at (the) site,” Azim said. He added that the land development for the main plant area is almost complete and power supply for construction is already available, and the company is doing its best to get the plant operational as soon as possible. “Normally, it takes a cycle off 12 months for financial closure. However, all our efforts are being made to reduce this 12-month cycle of financial closure to 7 months. We have already taken some advance steps in this direction.
“The plant shall be operational to its full capacity by financial year 2020-21.”
The Rampal and Orion coal-fired power plants have attracted criticism on a number of environmental fronts, such as their possible contributions to global warming. But BIFPCL staunchly refutes such concerns.
Coal expansion is not unique to Bangladesh. Fresh out of the COP21, a report by a consortium of climate research organizations called Climate Action Tracker estimates that the world plans to build 2,440 coal-based power plants by 2030. Burning coal has been identified as a top driver of climate change.
“Even with no new construction, emissions from coal-fired power generation in 2030 would still be 150% higher than what is consistent with scenarios limiting warming to below 2°C above preindustrial levels,” the report states. If the 2,440 plants are indeed built, the report estimates the resultant carbon dioxide emissions will exceed prescribed levels by as much as 400 percent.
For years, the Rampal power plant has been the focus of criticism and protests from national and international groups. In addition to objections about Bangladesh’s plans to expand coal-based energy generation during a time of unprecedented global warming, the location of the proposed plant – 14 kilometers from the Sundarbans – is attracting the ire of conservation organizations.
If the Rampal plant were to become operational, an estimated 4.72 million tons of coal will be burned every year. In order to increase electricity production to 1,320 megawatts, the plant will require 13,000 metric tons of coal every day and, over a year’s period, will release about 8 million tons of carbon dioxide, 0.75 million tons of coal dust and 0.2 million tons of residue. The plant is also expected to release 5,000 cubic meters of hot water every hour into the nearby Passur River.
This, scientists say, could have a big impact on the Sundarbans.
“The coal-fired power plant will be the largest threat to the Sundarbans. The project should be abandoned for the sake of the Bangladesh Sundarbans,” write reseachers in a study published in the journal Diversity last year.
Will Rampal be too close to the Sundarbans?
Notably one of the main players in the Rampal project is India. Not only is the Indian NTPC a 50 percent partner in the project, but India’s Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited [BHEL] is the manufacturing company that earlier this year won the bid to construct the Rampal plant. According to Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, a professor of environmental science at Bangladesh’s Khulna University, these companies would likely never be able to participate in such a deal or project within India itself because of comparatively stringent environmental laws that would not allow any such power plant construction within 25 kilometers of an ecologically sensitive area. He said India’s NTPC is exploiting Bangladesh’s outdated environmental legislation that restricts developmental activity in an eco-sensitive zone to only 10 kilometers. Chowdhury said that since the Rampal project is being constructed 14 kilometers away from Sundarbans, the NTPC was able to engage in a project that would have been illegal in its own country.
However, BIFPCL representative Anwarul Azim denies that such development would be illegal in India.
“[The] Rampal project is located in Bangladesh and being developed by BIFPCL. It must follow the laws of Bangladesh. We have got approval based on Bangladesh laws,” Azim told Mongabay. “However…we would like to clarify that NTPC is given permission to construct a plant based on prevalent environment stipulations in India. As far as our knowledge goes, no such stipulation of 25 kilometers exists in India. The existing radius is approximately up to 10 kilometers which varies from state to state. The Rampal power plant is located beyond 14 kilometers from Sundarbands.”
Some critics dispute even the 14-kilometer mark. A civil society group in Bangladesh called the National Committee for Protection of Oil-Gas and Mineral Resource, Electricity Sector and Ports (hereafter referred to as the National Committee), issued a statement in November 2015. In their statement, the National Committee writes that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report issued by the Bangladesh government does not account for the Sundarbans’ buffer zone, which, if considered, reduces the distance between the mangroves and the Rampal plant site to a mere four kilometers.
Chowdhury adds that even though the government says that there is a distance of 67 kilometers between the Rampal site and the portion of the Sundarbans that is listed as a World Heritage Site, one cannot assume that the ecological importance of the Sundarbans exists only in the one part protected at UNESCO level. He alleges that not all areas of the Sundarbans were considered in the EIA report, with the result that “one patch of the Sundarbans (Dhangmari) is only 9.6 kilometers from the Rampal project site.”
BIFPCL representative Azim maintains the company is following stringent norms as far as environmental standards go and the plant not harm the Sundarbans, saying the UNESCO heritage site of the Sundarbans is located around 70 kilometers from the power plant and the region’s wind direction will act as a natural shield for the Sundarbans. In its statement, BIFPCL asserts that the Sundarbans, along with the people and wildlife it supports, “are totally safe from this power plant.”
The company further justifies the project by underlining Bangladesh’s relatively scant levels of coal-produced electricity compared to other countries.
“Various countries of the world have been giving thrust on using coal as an alternative source of fuel to generate electricity. In the USA, 40 percent of electricity (is) generated from coal while in Germany it is 41 percent, in Japan it is 27 percent, in India it is 68 percent, in South Africa the percentage is 93, in Australia it is 78 percent, 33 percent in Malaysia and 79 percent in China,” the statement reads. “On the other hand, Bangladesh produces only 2.26 percent electricity from coal. So in order to ensure rapid economic growth we need to emphasize coal based power plants.”
While coal is rising in Bangladesh, investment in renewable energy sources is lagging. According to Rahman, most of Bangladesh’s renewable energy ventures focus on solar energy while the potential of harnessing on and off-shore wind energy, as well as biomass and biogas, remain largely unexplored. For example, he said, a 100-megawatt wind power project that was slated for completion in June 2012 still stands unfinished due to the reluctance of policy makers. Rahman says the nation set a renewable policy target at 5 percent of its total electricity generation capacity by 2015 – but today it stands below 2 percent.
He also said big gains could be made simply by modifying old power plants to be more efficient.
“We could easily generate more than 4,000 [megawatts] within only 6 to 12 months by modernizing the old generation power plant, by introducing energy efficiency in energy utilization and by implementing conservation in energy usage,” Rahman said.
Not just forest: Rampal’s possible impact on rivers
The Rampal plant is currently set to be built in the floodplain of the Passur and Maidara rivers. According to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests’ guidelines for selecting coal-based power plant sites, plants should also not be constructed less than 500 meters away from the floodplains of rivers.
But to transport the thousands of tons of coal that the Rampal plant will require, a fleet ships will travel along a 67-kilometer route that cuts directly through the Sundarbans.
“Coal imported to fuel the plant will be transported to the region on ocean-going ships, each having a capacity of 80,000 tons,” states the BankTrack report. “It is estimated that 59 ships will make the voyage each year to meet the plant’s coal requirement. All ships will anchor at Akram point – located within the Sundarbans – where their massive loads of coal will be offloaded to smaller vessels, posing significant risks of coal spillage and toxic coal dust being released into the environment.”
The smaller vessels will travel along the Passur river between Akram point and the Rampal site, “making a total of 400-500 trips per year directly through the Sundarbans.” To make arrangements for this heavy transportation, BIFPCL is planning on dredging and widening a 10-kilometer stretch of the Passur river.
BIFPCL asserts that even with this high rate of coal transport, spills will not be a major problem. This, despite an oil spill in which 350,000 liters of oil was released into the waterways of the Sundarbans and, more recently, a boat carrying 510 metric tons of coal capsized in the nearby Passur river.
Addressing the safety concerns with regards to spillages etc., Azim said. “We shall follow IMO (International Maritime Organization) convention for all ship and barge movement. All the necessary precautions shall be taken to avoid occurrence of an accident. However, in case of any mishap we envisage to formulate an emergency response and rescue plan jointly with Mongla port authority.”
Azim added that the coal will be loaded onto the vessels “in an environment friendly manner” and will remain covered during transport over the river to avoid spillages and coal dust. Additionally, he said, they will use measures for dust suppression at every step including at the unloading point at the jetty.
Spilled coal isn’t the only thing that has the potential to affect the Passur River. The boats will also need to travel through a dolphin sanctuary, and the Rampal project’s own EIA identified four “important dolphin areas” along this route, one of which, the report says, is the anchorage area at Akram point. Chowdhury said that the Passur river is a breeding ground for the threatened Irrawaddy dolphin. This habitat and the species dependent on it, he said, are likely to be affected by the dredging of the river.
In addition, Chowdhury said that during a study he participated in, researchers observed that every liter of water collected from the Passur river contained 500 to 1,200 eggs of fish and other organisms. He pointed out that the government report claims that the power plant will use 9,150 cubic meters – or 9.1 million liters – of water per hour to transform coal into electricity. In other words, based on the results of this study, the water consumption of the plant alone could result in the destruction of 4.5 billion to 11 billion eggs per hour of operation.
Rampal has attracted the concerns of local communities, regional organizations, and international NGOs alike, which are questioning the long-term impacts of the Rampal coal power plant.
Rampal’s critics aren’t just worried about environmental issues. Reports from Transparency International Bangladesh and South Asians for Human Rights allege that people in the project area have been forcibly displaced from their properties without compensation or the means to maintain their living standards.
In addition to helping relieve Bangladesh’s strained energy reserves, proponents of the Rampal project say it will bring many needed jobs to the region. Kallol Mustafa, an activist and organizer of the National Committee, refutes this. While local people might get work as daily-wage laborers, Mustafa thinks it’s unlikely they will be appointed to any of the permanent posts considering the skill-set needed to do those jobs. On the other hand, he said, thousands of people have lost their agriculture-based livelihoods because their land was acquired for the power plant. And, he added, if the plant does become operational, even more jobs will be lost because of the adverse environmental conditions the Rampal plant will create in and around the Sundarbans.
For the last two years, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has also expressed its concern about the impacts of the coal plant on the “outstanding universal values” of the Sundarbans and has even requested the Bangladesh government suspend all activities until further detailed studies are done on the cumulative impacts of the Rampal plant. According to Mowdud Rahman, Ramsar Convention Secretariat and the IUCN have also formally expressed their concerns regarding this project.
The Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global Council on Ethics investigated the Rampal power project and in its 2014 annual report, recommended that the fund divest from India’s NTPC because of “an unacceptable risk that [NTPC] will contribute to severe environmental damage through the building and operation of the power plant at Rampal, including related transportation service.” Norway’s Global Pension Fund then proceeded to divest $56 million from NTPC in 2015.
In May, three of France’s largest banks – BNP Paribas, Credit Agricole and Societe Generale – also withdrew their funding for the Rampal plant on the grounds that the “risks associated with the project” were not in line with their policies. A June 2015 study by BankTrack showed that the environmental and social impacts of the Rampal project contradict the standards and guidelines set forth by the Equator Principles, which are a set of social and environmental guidelines for financing worldwide projects.
In another setback for the power plant, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee asked the Bangladeshi government to invite a monitoring mission to the Sundarbans “to review the state of conservation of the property, and the potential impacts of the thermal power plant development and dredging of Pashur River.” This, Rahman says, is the first step that the Committee usually takes before assigning a site to the World Heritage in Danger list.
Local communities have demonstrated their opposition en-masse. In September 2013, 20,000 people marched for five days from the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka to the Rampal project site in Khulna, demanding the project be stopped immediately. In May 2015, more than 40 environmental groups, at a conference in Dhaka, denounced the plant’s potential “to cause significant damage to world’s largest mangrove forest’s unique ecosystem.”
This dissent has not been met with kindly, according to local critics. At one of many protests last year, activists claim local goons affiliated with the ruling party and in cahoots with the police force, attacked the protesters fiercely, leaving many of them injured. BIFPCL responded in a statement in October 2015, calling activists’ claims and criticism “misleading and baseless propaganda.” This statement was released as a print advertisement on the last page of a national newspaper in Bangladesh, titled “Rampal Power Plant is an Environment Friendly Project.”
Mustafa said the National Committee will hold another long march from Dhaka to the Sundarbans from March 10 to March 15, 2016, to demand the cancellation of the power plant development.
“Prior to the six-day long march, the national committee will hold countrywide mass contacts, rallies and processions to drum up supports to the long march,” he said.
Despite cautionary opinions expressed by researchers, national and international organizations, and even the government’s own environmental impact assessment, Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina’s government is currently still giving the green light not just to the Rampal project but to the 565-MW Orion coal-fired power plant — which is even closer to the Sundarbans mangroves.
“Now is the time to show a common wisdom and make the right decisions for a greener and more habitable world,” Hasina said in a speech at the 2009 Climate Summit. “Future generations will judge us for the choices we make today.”
Aziz, A., & Paul, A. R. (2015). Bangladesh Sundarbans: Present status of the environment and Biota. Diversity, 7(3), 242-269.
Chowdhury, Abdullah Harun. 2003. Glimpses of Flora and Fauna of the Sundarbans. Presented in the National Seminar on The Sundarbans, the Largest Mangrove Forest on the Earth: A World Heritage Site, (25-26 June 2003) Khulna University, Bangladesh.
Chowdhury, Abdullah Harun. 2009. Impact of climate change on the rivers of Sundarbans. Presented in the Conference on Climate change and Bangladesh Development Strategy: Domestic Policy and International Cooperation (2 January 2009), Organized by BAPA, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis on February 16, 2016.