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

The capsize of a cargo vessel in Bangladesh on Sunday carrying 775 metric tons of coal near the Sundarbans has rekindled concerns about the huge Bangladesh-India coal-power plant in Rampal, just 14 kilometers upstream from the forest.

Construction of the 1,320-megawatt plant is going on in full swing but the latest drama has amplified fears given the power plant will need about 10,000 metric tons of coal a day – and the fact that all of the coal is expected to be ferried to the plant via rivers and tributaries that run through the Sundarbans.

At present, less than a tenth of this predicted demand, or about 900 metric tons of coal, is ferried through the forest — mostly for brick kilns across the country — in barges which get the loads from larger ships anchored near the forest in the Bay of Bengal.

A total of four coal-laden boats have capsized over the last three years, causing considerable harm to the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Environmentalists say that transporting a coal-load more than 10 times the current quantity is “a recipe of disaster” that could greatly harm the 1,395 square kilometer forest, which spans both the Bangladeshi and the east Indian coast.

No lesson learned

“What can I say? The issue unfortunately comes into the limelight when you have a sunken boat,” said academic-activist Prof Anu Muhammad, who has been protesting against the Rampal power plant from its onset.

“We have long been asking to stop any sort of cargo ship through the Sundarbans, but it seems our urges have fallen on to deaf ears.”

The MV Bilash, which sank on Sunday, hit a hidden char (shoal) near the Harbaria area of the Poshur River that crisscrosses the Sundarbans. The forest is located near the Bay of Bengal estuary, so the current is very strong and it brings silt and creates several hidden chars.

Earlier, three other vessels had similar accidents. In October 2015, the MV GR Raj, carrying 510 tons of coal, capsized in the Pasur River. About five months later, on March 19, 2016, MV Sea Horse-1, carrying 1,235 tons of coal from Chittagong port, sunk in the Shela River in the Sundarbans.

And on January 13 last year, MV Aichghati, carrying 1,000 tons of coal, capsized 10 kilometers off Hiron Point in the Chandpai range, in the Bay of Bengal estuary.

As well as the four coal-carrying barges that sank, Southern Star-7, an oil tanker carrying 350,000 liters of furnace oil, also went down in the Shela River in the Sundarbans near Mongla in December 2014, creating a disaster in an area which is a sanctuary for dolphins and many aquatic animals and fish.

Prof Muhammad said that frequent manmade disasters such as the capsize of cargo vessels had threatened the vast mangrove forest, which is home to many endangered animal species and migratory birds.

According to the experts, slag from coal production contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury, which pose a threat to human, animal, and plant life.

“The idea of a coal-based power plant so close to the Sundarbans is fraught with danger. The government talked of using higher grade coal for the plant. But coal is coal and a boat full of that under the water wouldn’t make any difference,” he said.

According to Prof Muhammad, the Bangladeshi government is in denial by constantly saying that construction of Rampal plant won’t hurt the huge forest. “It will hurt the Sundarbans in many ways,” he said. “The capsize of coal-loaded boats is just one of them.”

A threat to forest’s existence

Many other environmentalists and academics are convinced that building the huge $1.8-billion coal-power plant will be a death knell for the huge forest.

The World Heritage Committee included Sundarbans on its World Heritage List in 1997, given its universal value as a unique ecosystem.

In recent years, the committee has expressed concern about the state of the world’s largest mangrove forest, citing various reasons, including the Bangladesh government’s decision to construct a coal-power plant at Rampal.

In October 2016 the committee launched its “Report On The Mission To The Sundarbans World Heritage Site, Bangladesh”, which said it had put the Sundarbans on its list of ‘World Heritage [sites] in Danger’.

It also said that “any large-scale industrial and, or infrastructure development (including the Rampal power plant) is not allowed to proceed near the Sundarbans before a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) has been completed.

But strangely, after the last World Heritage Committee meeting in Poland last July, two things happened: first, the heritage committee said they were not going to put Sundarbans on their ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list. And second, the clause that stated “including the Rampal power plant” was removed.

Now the WHC condition says “any large-scale industrial and/or infrastructure development is not allowed to proceed near Sundarban before a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) has been completed.”

The government has noted the clause objecting to the Rampal coal plant has been removed. It claims that with UNESCO now making “no mention of Rampal” in the report, there is technically no problem in going ahead with the project.

Government ‘blind to risks of coal plant’

While there is seemingly no ‘legal’ or ‘logical’ explanation to the government’s claim and stance on Rampal, environmentalists and activists say it is morally wrong.

Sharif Jamil, a member of the Committee to Protect Sundarbans — a platform which brings all concerned environmentalists and activists under one roof — told Asia Times that the World Heritage Committee has asked to stop “any large-scale industrial or infrastructure development near Sundarbans.”

“If a multi-billion dollar coal-based mega power plant project doesn’t fall under the category of a ‘large-scale industrial project’, I don’t know what will,” he said.

Jamil added that if the government wants to remain blind to the danger of the Rampal plant, it could do that. But he said protesters opposed to the project have enough logical arguments based on facts and figures on whether such a project should be built near the forest.

“Many of the top government officials talk about coming up with a scientific argument – we did that on various occasions. But what’s the point? The government hasn’t stopped the construction work even for a bit. There is no level playing field in this battle.”