Considering the situation, UNESCO’s advisory body has proposed a deferral. However, Bangladesh must make its position clear to WHC within 1 February 2022, before the 45th WHC session.

Mohammad Hossain, director general of power cell under the power and energy ministry of Bangladesh, is one of the state party representatives. He told Prothom Alo, “Bangladesh is working to meet all conditions set by WHC. Moreover, the government has taken several initiatives to conserve the forest. We hope that WHC will not take any ‘wrong’ decision regarding our pride, the Sundarbans.”

In 1997, UNESCO included the name of the Sundarbans on the world heritage list.

Recently, industrial activities including construction of a coal-fired power plant in the close vicinity to the Sundarbans, put the forests’ status on the world heritage list at stake.

Progress report by Bangladesh government

The 43th WHC session requested the Bangladesh government to halt construction of the Rampal coal-fired power plant at Bagerhat district and to revoke permission for new industries around 10km radius of the boundary of Sundarbans.

The WHC suggested Bangladesh to assess what would be the ecological impact of the Rampal power plant and other industrial installations including the under-construction power plants at Payra, Patuakhali and at Taltali, Barguna on the Sundarbans. Besides, an independent and neutral strategic environmental assessment (SEA) over the entire south-western region of the country was suggested.

In reply, environment, forest and climate change ministry of Bangladesh submitted a progress report saying the government did not permit construction of new big industries in the close vicinity of the Sundarbans. Permission for a private coal-fired power plant was revoked and the plan for second phase of the Rampal power plant was cancelled.

Citing that the Rampal project is going to be a state-of-the-art installation, the report stated the power plant would not harm the ecology of Sundarbans.

It added that Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS) would prepare the SEA with technical consultancy by Integra Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the government expanded the reserved area of the forest covering 52 per cent of the Sundarbans as an additional measure to conserve the mangrove forest. The government also declared a 10km buffer zone of the forest as an ecologically critical area, although the initiatives were not set by the WHC.

Opinion by the greens

Some local green activists disagree with the government report, citing it to be filled with discrepancies.

This month, the National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (NCSS)–a coalition of 50 green organisations–has sent a letter to UNESCO. The committee pointed out the flaws in the government initiatives. Through the letter, the committee requested UNESCO to send another reactive monitoring mission to inspect the state of Sundarbans.

The committee said that civil society as well as independent experts will not accept the SEA as CEGIS has been keeping the data assessment a secret, although the government agreed to WHC to make the documents open to the public.

The committee also expressed its objection against CEGIS, terming it biased and dependent, rather a government organisation.

CEGIS prepared the ecologically impact assessment (EIA) on Rampal power plant in 2010. NCSS rejected the EIA because of its low quality. The committee reminded the UNESCO, writing that preparing SEA by CEGIS is a violation of conditions set of WHC as well as the environment laws of Bangladesh as the survey organisation did not upload all of its EIA in its website.

CEGIS is a trusted organisation of the water resources ministry of Bangladesh. The ministry secretary as an ex officio holds the chair of the organisation. NCSS alleged that the government takes services from CEGIS for EIA on the controversial development projects.

CEGIS executive director Malik Fida A Khan, however, denied the allegation. He said, “We are preparing the SEA following international standard and rules. EIAs on the power plants at Rampal, Taltali and Kuakata are handed over to the concerned authorities. There is no false information or irregularities in the surveys.”

NCSS in its letter to UNESCO, wrote that toxic substances like nitrogen oxide, mercury, dioxin, coal ashes and others from the Rampal plant would be dumped in the nearby tidal floodplains, risking contamination of water in the canals and creeks of Sundarbans.

NCSS convener Sultana Kamal said, “The government pays no heed to the independent assessments the committee had collected from some world famous experts on power plants and environment. Construction of the Rampal plant continues.”

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