In a rare intervention, the United Nations’ (UN’s) heritage conservation arm is urging Bangladesh to relocate a proposed 1,320-MW coal-fired power plant because it poses a serious threat to one of the world’s largest mangrove forests.
Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Co. Ltd. (BIFPCL)—a joint venture of the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) and India’s largest power producer, NTPC Ltd.—have proposed building the Maitree “super thermal” coal-fired power plant at Rampal Upazila of Bagerhat District in Khulna, about 65 kilometers away from the border of Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangrove forest, which was named a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1997.
All power from the two-unit supercritical plant would be sold to the state-run BPDB and could be essential to ensure reliability in the power-starved country, which has struggled to keep its existing capacity available. The country used only 8,559 MW of its installed 12,780 MW in October, according to BPDB statistics. The Bangladesh Financial Express noted on October 19 that power outages across the country have been on the rise, affecting urban and rural areas, hampering industrial output, and forcing residents to suffer in the heat.
But according to a report released this October by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the proposed plant could adversely affect the nearby Sundarbans forest. The mission team report recommends that the Rampal power plant project be canceled and relocated to a more suitable location.
The forest, which has an area of about 140,000 hectares (Figure 3), lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal and is the largest contiguous mangrove forest remaining in the world. “The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes,” the UNESCO report says. “The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.”
UNESCO’s report, based on a monitoring mission conducted in March 2016, identifies four key concerns related to the plant’s construction: pollution from coal ash by air, pollution from wastewater and waste ash, increased shipping and dredging, and the cumulative impact of industrial and related development infrastructure. It also concludes that freshwater flow into the Sundarbans has been “drastically reduced, resulting in substantial increases in siltation and salinity that are threatening the overall balance of the ecosystem.” It claims that the proposed plant site lacks a “clear and comprehensive assessment of the combined effects from increasing coastal development,” and it recommends “immediate action” to secure adequate freshwater flow to the site.
The World Heritage Centre has asked Bangladesh to provide a progress report on the state of conservation of the property by December 1. That report would be examined by the World Heritage Committee “in view of possible inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger” at its 41st session in 2017. The World Heritage Centre noted in a later press release that it had arranged a meeting with an expert delegation of senior officials from Bangladesh “to chart a way forward.” The meeting “set the stage for constructive cooperation and dialogue toward implementation of the mission’s recommendations,” it said.
POWER contacted BIFPCL for comment in early November but did not receive a response by press time.
—Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)