A Royal Bengal Tiger rests under a mangrove tree in Sundarbans National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Jayne Stockdale
A Royal Bengal Tiger rests under a mangrove tree in Sundarbans National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Jayne Stockdale

Is economic development – particularly in developing nations – more important than protecting the environment? Humanity has long found itself conflicted over this question. For some, environmental conservation can be enabled by building ‘sustainability’ into policy decisions that allow for development and growth.

Bangladesh is currently embroiled in such a conversation with regard to a coal-fired thermal power plant proposed for construction just a few miles from the edge of Sundarbans, a forested area that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a bird and wildlife sanctuary.

The 1,320 megawatt plant – a 50:50 joint venture between India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board – is among 25 new fossil-fuel power stations that the Bangladeshi government aims to construct by 2022 in order to generate 23,692 megawatts of electricity as the country strives to achieve upper middle-income status by 2021.

Bangladesh is faced with something of a dilemma when it comes to energy. It must balance growing demand for electricity from a burgeoning population and industrial sector with serious environmental safety anxieties in a nation known to be one of the most climate-vulnerable globally.

According to the Bangladesh government’s own data, even though over half (54%) of the country’s electricity is currently generated from natural gas, its gas reserves are dwindling fast. Building more fossil fuel power stations therefore may only be a short term fix for a nation where over a third of the population lacks access to an unfettered supply of electricity.

Professor Anu Muhammad, member-secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports – a Bangladeshi civil society group – says the country should be more aggressive in bringing renewable energy sources into the mainstream, “to produce equal (amounts) or more electricity”, and also “(increase the) efficiency of existing power plants, by way of which more than 1500 megawatts electricity can be added to the system.”

A respected civil rights activist, Muhammad is also perturbed by the way force was used by the government to evict people from Sundarban’s natural wetlands and fertile agricultural lands more than two years before an environmental impact assessment was even undertaken. Now, despite continued protests by civil rights and political groups and a warning from a UNESCO fact-finding team regarding possible threats to Sundarban’s natural biodiversity and its unique mangrove ecosystem, Dhaka has decided to pull the trigger and commence construction by the end of this month.

Khondkar Abdus Saleque, a renowned energy expert and a former Bangladesh representative on the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Energy Ring Co-Ordination Committee, says candidly: “It is difficult to find such an ideal location in land-constrained Bangladesh.” Following a site visit and a thorough examination of the Rampal plant’s design, he insists that the power station poses no threat to the environment.

“Use of ultra-super critical technology will help increase efficiency, thus reducing fuel and reagent consumption, solid waste and water use, as well as operating costs,” he adds. Crucially, he points out that Bangladesh is not guilty of pursuing coal expansion alone: a Climate Action Tracker estimate estimates that 2,440 new coal-based power plants will be added around the globe in the next 15 years.