John Kerry had come to Dhaka in order to hand over the invitation to join the ‘Leaders Summit on Climate’, being organised by US president Joe Biden. The summit is to be held on 22 and 23 April in the US. However, due to the coronavirus outbreak, it is being held virtually.

Can I ask an outrageous question? Can you stop Rampal?
John Kerry, US president Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate change

An hour and a half after landing in Dhaka, John Kerry met with foreign minister AK Abdul Momen at the state guest house Padma. Also present at the meeting were state minister for environment, forest and climate change, Md Shahab Uddin, state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam and foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen.

The foreign minister, at the meeting, highlighted various steps taken by Bangladesh to tackle the threat of climate change. When the issue of the Sundarbans arose, the foreign minister apprised John Kerry about the government’s various initiatives to protect the Sundarbans, including afforestation. At this point John Kerry said that he was confused at Bangladesh’s stance concerning 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. He addressed Abdul Momen, asking, “Can I ask an outrageous question? Can you stop Rampal?”

John Kerry was then told that Bangladesh always placed importance on environmental protection. Bangladesh was among the main countries that faced the threat of climate change. Despite resource constraints, various steps were being taken to face the climate change challenge. The protection of the Sundarbans was being given due importance in the construction of the Rampal power plant.

Several sources in the government, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo that at present, work on the Rampal power plant had advanced considerably. The government would not be able to do anything about it now, even if objections were raised.

Earlier in 2017, the former US vice president, environmentalist Al Gore, had appealed to prime minister Sheikh Hasina to halt the construction of the Rampal power plant. He had made this appeal on June that year, while sitting next to Sheikh Hasina at a work session of the World Economic Forum being held in Davos, Switzerland. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina asked Al Gore at the time to come and visit Bangladesh to see the Sundarbans and see if the project was harming the environment at all.

In 1997, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared the Sundarbans as a World Heritage Site. Bangladesh Power Development Board and India’s NTPC Limited are jointly constructing the 1320MW power plant at Rampal in Bagerhat, next to the Sundarbans. Environmentalists at home and abroad have raised questions about the power plant.

UNESCO has been raising objections to the Rampal project since 2018. They asked for the project to be shifted away from the Sundarbans. A study carried out by UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the Rampal project says that this project 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, 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 had observed that the technology being used in the Rampal project was of low standard. In most countries coal-fired power plants were being closed down.

He said the construction of such a power plant that was damaging to the Sundarbans, was harmful to the country’s environment, economy and reputation.

* This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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