‘Govt tried to influence UNESCO spending people’s money’


The leaders of the National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas-Natural Resources and Power and Port on Monday alleged the ruling Awami League government tried to influence the decision of the UNESCO over the construction of Rampal coal-fired power plant in the vicinity of the Sundarbans.

“The government has tried to influence the UNESCO, spending people’s money,” says a statement issued jointly by the National Committee’s convener Engineer Sheikh Muhammad Shahidullah and member secretary Anu Muhammad. The statement comes following the prime minister’s energy affairs adviser Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury’s words regarding the Rampal project.

The statement also alleged that the government is showing stubbornness, telling lies and taking resort to fraudulence about the project - a joint initiative of Bangladesh and India.

Tawfiq on Monday said the government will continue the construction work of the Rampal coal-fired power plant.

Addressing a press conference at Bidyut Bhaban in the capital, Tawfiq claimed that the UNESCO decision puts no bar on continuation of the construction work.

He, however, said if the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) reveals any negative impact of Rampal project on the Sundarbans, the government would take measures to mitigate it.

According to his claim, the UNESCO in its draft decision had said no big industrial unit including Rampal coal-fired power plant should be set up around the Sundarbans, but it later dropped the name of Rampal power plant in its final report.

The energy adviser of the prime minister further claimed that the final UNESCO report did not mention anything about the fear it had voiced earlier that the coal-fired power plant will cause harm to the world’s largest mangrove forest.

“So, the construction will continue,” Tawfiq told the media briefing.

The government’s claim that UNESCO has given clearance to go ahead with the Rampal coal-fired power plant project, is however not evident in the decisions made public by the global body.

The final report on the decisions adopted during the 41st session of the UNESCO's World Heritage Committee held in Poland was published on Sunday.

It stated that the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has requested that a 'Strategic Environmental Assessment' (SEA) be carried out regarding the impact of the Rampal power project on the Sundarbans, a world heritage site, and the southwest region of the country.

The organisation has emphasised that no large industrial infrastructure should be constructed in this region until this assessment is completed.

So, the latest report suggests, almost all the conditions laid down by the organisation regarding work on the Rampal power plant, remain intact.

Experts say the government’s statement to the effect that clearance has been granted to go ahead with the Rampal project is not correct.

The heritage committee's meeting ended on 12 July, but the full text of the decision taken at the meeting was published 18 days later.

Member secretary of National Committee for Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and Power and Ports, Anu Muhammad, told Prothom Alo, the government made a commitment at the UNESCO meeting to accept their decision.

"Now if the government accepts the UNESCO’s final decision, then work on Rampal must definitely be halted. And it has been proved once again that the statements made by various quarters in the government that UNESCO has withdrawn its objection to the Rampal project, are false," he said.

11 decisions taken at 41st session of the UNESCO's World Heritage Committee

The 41st session of the UNESCO's World Heritage Committee was held in Poland from 2-12 July. The committee took 11 decisions about the Sundarbans like other world heritages. Important decisions are as follows:

Decision no 3 welcomes Bangladesh’s decision not to approve the Orion power plant and Phase II of the Rampal power plant.

Decision no 4 also welcomes Bangladesh’s decision to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the South-West region of the country, including the property.

It also requests Bangladesh to ensure that any large-scale industrial and/or infrastructure developments will not be allowed to proceed before the SEA has been completed, and to submit a copy of the SEA to the World Heritage Centre for review by IUCN, in accordance with Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines, as soon as it is available.

Decision no 5 also welcomes the information provided on ecological monitoring. It also noted with concern that sea level rise, salt intrusion and reductions in fresh water flows are posing a threat to the Sundarbans’ ecosystem.

Decision no 6 took note of the critical importance of transboundary cooperation between the Bangladesh and India on “The Sundarbans” (Bangladesh) and “Sundarbans National Park” (India). It further welcomes the efforts made by both countries to enhance collaboration, and urges Bangladesh to fully implement the recommendations made by the 2016 mission to ensure adequate freshwater inflows to the Sundarbans.

Decision no 8 welcomes the development of a draft “National Oil Spill and Chemical Contingency Plan” (NOSCOP) of Bangladesh, and requests it to ensure adequate provision of funding and human resources for the implementation of the plan once it is adopted.

The committee also asked to provide further information and data on the monitoring of long-term impacts from recent shipping incidents involving spills of hazardous materials in proximity to the property and requests furthermore to put in place a management system for shipping to minimize negative impacts on the Sundarbans, including from associated activities such as dredging.

Decision no 9 requests to Bangladesh to undertake the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for any future dredging of the Passur River to include an assessment of impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Sundarbans.

Decision no 10 expressed concerns about the likely environmental impacts of the Rampal coal-fired power plant on the Sundarbans arising from air and water pollution, a substantial increase in shipping and dredging, and additional removal of freshwater from an already increasingly saline environment.

It requested furthermore to ensure that these impacts are comprehensively assessed as part of the SEA and adequate technological measures are put in place to mitigate these impacts and to put in place adequate measures to mitigate these impacts, in order to avoid damage to the Sundarbans.

The last decision stated that an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the conditions was to be submitted by 1 December 2018 for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 43rd session in 2019.

* The piece, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza.