The Sundarbans (photo: Amio James Ascension)
Bangladesh’s struggle to generate power has always been a major concern. Officially nearly half its 160 million population have access to electricity, with total demand estimated at 5,500 megawatts. Power shortages have risen rapidly with population, economic growth, large-scale urbanization and industrialization, although the state-run Power Development Board (PDB)
says it is addressing the shortage with a series of new or expanded power plants. One such venture, a proposed joint venture thermal power plant project with India, has seen stiff opposition from a number of leading environmentalist and rights groups because of its location. It is less than 20km from the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. When a deal to build the US$1.5 billion plant was signed in January, PDB chairman Alamgir Kabir said the plant would not harm the environment. “The plant will have top-class technology to capture ash produced from coal-firing,” he said. Local mayor Talukder Abdul Khaleq says the government has been taking necessary steps to ensure safety and security of the Sundarbans and people living in the region. A compensation package has been arranged, he said, but “this project is vital because it will boost the economy and create employment for many people.” Environmentalists and rights activists have since called on the government to cancel the deal and retreat from the project. They have staged a number of protest rallies and issued a memorandum to authorities to call it off, claiming that although the need for power is well understood, the proposed project would have adverse effects on wildlife and biodiversity in the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as on local people. “A coal-fired thermal power plant will hit Sundarbans hard and people living close to it. It will pollute soil, air and water in the area,” said advocate Firoz Ahmed, an activist from Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, a leading environmentalist group. He said the plant will take water from the Poshur river nearby to cool down power generators, which is sure to have a negative effect on the life of the mangrove forest. Jahangir Alam, director of Coastal Development Partnership, an NGO that works in the Sundarbans area, says there are assurances that ‘clean coal’ would be used in the plant but coal will always cause major health and environmental disasters. Water resources expert M Enamul Haque says that he fears two-fold water pollution from the power plant. “Usually coal-fired plant generators need fresh water to cool down, but the site has no surface fresh water. Saline water will enter the ground as so much groundwater will be extracted. Secondly, release of used water (hot water) will also pollute the environment,” he said. A PDB official who didn’t want to be named said a coal-fired plant is always harmful to the environment as coal produces toxic sulphur. “For this plant, Indian coal will be imported and used, and it will have more sulphur than usual”, he added. However, Dilip Kumar Dutta, environmental science professor at Khulna University, says he is not concerned about the ‘much-talked’ adverse effect on the Sundarbans resulting from the power plant. “There have been many natural disasters in the last 30 years and I’ve seen the Sundarbans successfully tackle them. Its eco-system is naturally capable of surviving in an unfriendly environment. Apart from a power plant there are a number of man-made reasons [making it difficult for it] to allow its natural growth and survival,” he said.