Bangladesh’s Newest Coal Plant Will Threaten Its Largest Mangrove Forest

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CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

The largest coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh will soon be built on the outskirts of the world’s largest mangrove forest, a plan that has environmentalists and others in the country gravely worried.

The 1,320-megawatt Rampal power plant was quietly inaugurated in early October by Bangladeshi and Indian lawmakers after growing opposition to the project culminated in a 20,000-person, five-day march in Bangladesh in September. The power plant will sit about 5 and a half miles downstream of the Sundarbans, a species-rich ecosystem that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is depended upon by about half a million people for fishing and other livelihoods. Yale e360 looked into the coal plant’s potential impact on the Sundarbans this week, and outlined the ecological diversity of the region:

Roughly the size of Lebanon, the Sundarbans is home to at least 330 plant species, 315 bird species, 210 fish species, 49 mammal species, and 59 species of reptiles. Many of the species are endangered, including the Ganges river dolphin; the masked finfoot, a water bird; and the Bengal tiger. Globally, mangrove forests are among the world’s most important ecosystems — serving as fish nurseries, havens of biodiversity, and carbon storehouses — but they are increasingly disappearing in the face of coastal development and aquaculture.

According to an independent environmental impact statement by a Bangladeshi environmental scientist, the plant will burn about 4.75 million metric tons of coal and create about half a million metric tons of “sludge and liquid waste” each year — waste which will likely pollute the groundwater and the nearby Passur river. The project will require a huge amount of water — an estimated 9,150 cubic meters of water will be removed from the Passur river every hour to be desalinated, a plan scientists worry could disrupt the delicate salt-to-freshwater balance the mangroves along the river need to survive. It’s common practice, according to the EIS, for coal plants to dispose of the hot waste water used for cooling the plant into a nearby river or lake, posing a threat to the aquatic life near the power plant. On top of that, the project will require at least one ship per day to traverse the Passur river, which will add to the air and water pollution of the operation.

“While there is no ‘good’ location for a coal plant, situating one in or near a unique and already stressed ecosystem like the Sundarbans is inexcusable,”Greenpeace India’s Ashish Fernandes told e360.

The power plant is part of the Bangladesh government’s push to increase the country’s use of coal for power generation so it can provide electricity for its population, about half of whom don’t have access to electricity. So far, the government has proposed about 12 new coal plants, and is expected to propose more. But opponents in Bangladesh say these additional coal plants are unnecessary — increasing the efficiency of already existing natural gas plants could generate an additional 2,500 megawatts of electricity per year, one engineer told e360, which is nearly double what the Rampal plant will generate.

Unfortunately, despite strong lobbying from citizens against the project, the plans for the power plant are moving forward. But the risk the Sundarbans face from the power plant isn’t just an ecological issue — the region is crucial to Bangladesh because the mangrove forests act as a buffer against extreme storms in the region. And on top of the threats from the power plant, the Sundarbans are already feeling the effects of climate change. The low-lying forests are at major risk from sea level rise — already, rising seas have swallowed up two islands in the area, and the U.N. predicts that a 17-inch rise in sea levels would destroy 75 percent of the Sundarban forests. Large swaths of the forest have also been destroyed over the years to make room for agriculture and shrimp farming. The Sundarbans have some of the largest carbon-storage ability in the tropics, so any degradation of the mangrove forests releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.