By Raheed Ejaz/ Prothom Alo
Dhaka, April 14 The Bangladesh government has taken up various initiatives to protect the Sundarbans mangrove forests. But at the same time, it is setting up a coal-fired power plant at Rampal near the forests. Experts have repeatedly said that the power plant will put the mangrove forest at risk, but the government has paid no heed.
During his six-hour trip to Dhaka on April 9, US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate change, John Kerry, bluntly raised the Rampal plant issue during his official talks with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, according to sources present at the talks.
Present at the meeting were the State Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Md Shahab Uddin, the State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen
However, Kerry didn’t raise the Rampal plant issue in his talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But he did say in a general way, that coal-fired power plants are one of the main causes of environmental damage. He drew attention to the US opposition to coal-fired power plants.
The Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Abdul Momen, on his part, highlighted the various steps taken by Bangladesh to tackle threats from climate change and to protest the Sunderbans. At this point Kerry said that he was confused about Bangladesh’s stance on the Sundarbans. On the one hand it is taking steps to protect the forest, and on the other it is taking up projects like the Rampal coal-fired power plant. “How is this possible”, he asked. Several sources present at the meeting said that John Kerry raised the Rampal issue again towards the end of the talks. “Can I ask an outrageous question? Can you stop Rampal?”
John Kerry was then told that Bangladesh has always given importance to environmental protection. Despite resource constraints, various steps have been taken to face the climate change challenge. The protection of the Sundarbans is being given due importance in the construction of the Rampal power plant, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister said.
Several sources in the government, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo that at present, work on the Rampal power plant has advanced considerably. The government would not be able to do anything about it now, even if objections were raised, they added.
Earlier in 2017, the former US Vice President, environmentalist Al Gore, had appealed to Prime Minister Hasina to halt the construction of the Rampal power plant. He had made this appeal in June that year while sitting next to Sheikh Hasina at a working session in the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked Al Gore to visit Bangladesh to see the Sundarbans and see if the project is harming the environment.
In 1997, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Sundarbans as a World Heritage Site.
The Bangladesh Power Development Board and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation are jointly constructing the 1320 MW power plant at Rampal in Bagerhat, next to the Sundarbans, amidst opposition from environmentalists at home and abroad.
UNESCO has been raising objections to the project since 2018. A study carried out by UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the project says that it will do irreparable harm to the Sundarbans. This may also cause the Sundarbans to lose its status as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO has repeatedly warned.
Speaking to Prothom Alo a member of the national committee for the protection of the Sundarbans and general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan, Sharif Jamil, said that top scientists of the world have observed that the technology used in the Rampal project is of low standard. In most countries coal-fired power plants are being closed down.
(This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir)