A herd of deer roaming around the Sundarbans.
Faridi Numan

The UNESCO-formed reactive monitoring mission has recommended the Bangladesh government to halt construction of the Rampal thermal power plant and stop allowing new industries at the close vicinity of Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site (WHS).

Moreover, the government has been requested to measure the cumulative impacts of the existing industrial establishments on the WHS property through a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) and take further development plan according to the SEA.

On 16 June, the reactive monitoring mission submitted a report to UNESCO, with a set of conditions for Bangladesh to uphold the Sundarban’s WHS status. In 1997, UNESCO inscribed the Sundabans in the list of WHS.

Following a request by the government, UNESCO's reactive monitoring mission prepared a report after conducting field visits, interviews and document analysis.

In March, a draft of the report was sent to the government. Later, the government provided a review with expert opinions on the report. UNESCO evaluated the government’s review and uploaded the decisions to its website.

State minister for power, energy and mineral resources Nasrul Hamid, while enquired by Prothom Alo, refused to comment before going through the report.

Evaluation of the report and the government’s review will be discussed at the 44th World Heritage Committee meeting in China on 16 July.

The UNESCO evaluation says that the last World Heritage Committee meeting, held in 2019, recommended halting the construction of the Rampal power plant and Payra power plant at Kalapara, Patuakhali.

When the previous reactive monitoring mission visited Bangladesh in 2019, construction of the two power plants was going on and implementation of a new power plant at Taltali, Barguna was kicked off. The three power plants, if are commissioned, could potentially impact the Sundarbans’ outstanding universal value (OUV), the evaluation says.

So far, 67 per cent of the Rampal power plant project has been completed. The first unit of the plant would start power generation by December of the current year and the second one by June next year, the report says.

Rampal power plant

While enquired, Kazi Absar Uddin Ahmed, managing director of Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Private Limited–the implanting authority of Maitree Super Thermal Power Project (Rampal)– told Prothom Alo that the power plant will be operated by the state-of-art technology so that it will not harm the Sundarbans’ ecosystem.

The National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (NCSS)–a civic group–has long been raising concerns over the impact of Rampal project on the mangrove forests.

NCSS convener Sultana Kamal said, “We submitted the evidence in support of our concerns. But the government has been continuing with the project, paying no heed to us. If we fail to conserve the Sundarbans, the coastal areas of Bangladesh will become unprotected. The country will be lagged from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Checking heavy shipping operation recommended

UNESCO recommends limiting expansion of the Mongla Port as well as shipping operation within the Sundarbans. Already the heavy traffic on the River Pashur has intensified sound and water pollution in the forest area. Pollutions will be intensified more when the Rampal power plant and other large-scale industrial units become operational. Hence, the World Heritage Committee recommends monitoring the ongoing sound and water pollution across the Sundarbans on a regular basis.

The UNESCO report finds some positive initiatives by the Bangladesh government, citing the growing tiger population in the world’s largest mangrove forest. However, the report says the current state of dolphins and other wildlife could not be assessed due to no updates from the Bangladesh government.

UNESCO set a condition for Bangladesh to keep upholding the Sundarbans’ WHS that the government has to form an expert committee to assess the potential impacts by the industrial establishments near the forest.

A reactive monitoring mission report, later opined that the expert committee formed by the state party (Bangladesh government) was comprised mostly of forest department officials, retired officials from the environment department and university teachers. “A neutral assessment will not be possible by the committee members,” the report says.

While enquired, power cell director general Mohammad Hossain told Prothom Alo, “We have taken many initiatives in compliance with the UNESCO. Let UNESCO decide about the impartial experts if the committee we formed cannot be considered as neutral.”

Mohammad Hossian thought that experts can work impartially even if they work as government officials.

The UNESCO says that of the 154 industrial enterprises within the Sundarbans' ecologically critical area (ECA), 24 are categorised as Red industry and very hazardous. The remaining 130 are categorised as Orange industry or moderate pollutants. Besides, there are nine power plant projects across the south-western region of Bangladesh. Among them, Rampal project is closest to the Sundarbans within 4 kilometre radius of the ECA.

UNESCO suggests a survey on dolphin and other wildlife populations along the rivers neighbouring the under-construction power plants at Payra and Taltali.

Besides, it has been recommended to assess the current shipping operation on the rivers, the potential increase of waterway traffic on the rivers after the launching of the power plants, and the possible impacts of such industrialisation on the wildlife and the Sundarbans

UNESCO also recommends regular monitoring and evaluation of the ongoing dredging in the rivers crisscrossing the Sundarbans. It warns that dredging in the rivers shall not have any negative impact on the dolphins and other aqua faunas.

Diversion of fresh water in upstream India has intensified salinity in the Sundarbans rivers. As a result, two species of rhinos, wild water buffalo, swamp deer and three other animals became extinct in last century. Growing salinity in the mangrove forest will affect the sundry trees as well as other flora and fauna. Hence, UNESCO emphasises on increased flow of fresh water into the forests from upstream.

Talking about the UNESCO report, professor Anu Muhammad, member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, told Prothom Alo, “I agree with the UNESCO’s assessment on the risks for Sundarbans. We have been raising our concerns over the risks for a long. But the attitude and initiatives prove that the government does not want to conserve the Sundarbans. Rather, the government agencies are seen to be more active and will make all arrangements for the destruction of the Sundarbans.”

* This report appeared in the online and print editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman.