NGOs Call On UNESCO to Protect Sundarbans From Proposed Coal-fired Power Plant

The Rampal power station is a proposed 1320 MW coal-fired power station in Bangladesh. It is being built on the edge of the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Ramsar-listed wetland.

The Sundarbans is the largest area of tidal mangrove forest in the world. It is home to Bengal tigers, fishing cats, macaques, wild boars, common grey mongooses, foxes, jungle cats, flying foxes, pangolins, and spotted deer. More than four million people live in the Sundarbans.

If built, 5 million tonnes of coal would be shipped to the Rampal plant each year. The coal would be transported along the Poshur River, that flows through the Sundarbans. The river would need to be dredged, removing 32 million cubic metres of river bottom. The transportation would damage the river banks and pollute the Sundarbans mangrove forests. The plant would threaten the breeding grounds of endangered Ganges and Irrawaddy river dolphins.

The Rampal plant would produce almost one million tonnes of ash each year containing hazardous metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and nickel. The Environmental Impact Assessment for the coal-fired plant admits that “some” of this ash would be released to the atmosphere.

In March 2016, a fact-finding mission by IUCN and the World Heritage Centre found that the plant would expose the Sundarbans to pollution and acid rain. Their report found that the Rampal coal-fired plant “poses a serious threat” to the Sundarbans World Heritage Site.

In a statement, the World Heritage Centre wrote:

The mission team identified four key concerns related to the plant’s construction: pollution from coal ash by air, pollution from wastewater and waste ash, increased shipping and dredging, and the cumulative impact of industrial and related development infrastructure. The mission recommends that the Rampal power plant project be cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location.

July 2017 sees the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee. NGOs have written to the World Heritage Centre urging that the Sundarbans are place on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. The letter is supported by 70 NGOs from 27 countries (click here for the list of supporting organisations):

Letter To UNESCO: Protect Sundarbans From Coal-fired Power Plants


20 April, 2017
To: UNESCO World Heritage Committee
Appeal: Protect Sundarbans from coal-fired power plants
We are writing to express our deep concern regarding the proposed construction of the Rampal and Orion coal power-plant projects in Bangladesh, located only 12-14 km away from the Sundarbans. As you know, the Sundarbans is a World Heritage Site and the largest remaining mangrove forest in the world, covering a total area of 10,000 km2. It has extremely high species diversity, which is of critical importance for the conservation of endangered species globally. It is also home to more than 4 million people, who depend on the mangrove forests as their main source of food and income.
The Sundarbans celebrates its 20th anniversary as a World Heritage Site this year[1], but the planned coal power projects cast a dark shadow over this celebration. The UNESCO has already recommended the immediate cancellation of the Rampal power plant project[1], though there is no sign that the implementation of the projects has been halted. We therefore urge you to inscribe the Sundarbans on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger at the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee convening this July[2]. Further, we endorse the recommendations outlined by the Bangladesh civil society coalition in its petition to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in February 2016 and urge the Committee to follow them.[3] These recommendations were also reaffirmed by the National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (NCSS) in a letter to the World Heritage Committee in March 2017.[4]
Social and gender impacts
The planned coal power plants threaten the health and livelihoods of millions of people. The Sundarbans is a critical source of subsistence foods, medicines and building materials for local communities; as well as commercially valuable products of biodiversity, such as honey and fish; and ecotourism, that support many local livelihoods.[5] Local people rely on agriculture and fishing for their survival and meager income. The proposed power plants will negatively affect soil and water as well as the area of arable land available, consequently diminishing the livelihood prospects of local community members. If constructed, the power plants will also gravely impact people’s health, with wind carrying ash to the forest and to inhabited areas, resulting in acid rain, breathing difficulties, health issues for mothers and babies, etc. Many people have already been displaced as a result of land being purchased for the project, and it is likely that many more will be compelled to migrate or give up their homes in response to the detrimental effects of the projects. Women are particularly at risk, as displacement is linked to increases in gender violence, including falling victim to trafficking and prostitution.
Ecological impacts and pollution
Considering the short distance separating the planned power plants and the Sundarbans, the coal power plants are directly endangering the biodiversity of the mangrove forest. In that regard, we strongly endorse the UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s and IUCN’s findings regarding the four key main impacts related to the coal power plant’s construction: pollution from coal ash by air, pollution from wastewater and waste ash, increased shipping and dredging, and the cumulative impact of industrial and related infrastructure.[6] These are legitimate fears: national and international business groups with vested interests have been invited to obtain land in the area adjacent to the forest in order to set up commercial projects in and around the Sundarbans. In addition, the Rampal and Orion power plants will be dependent on imported coal from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa,[7] and negotiations with India are underway.[8] Coal mining in itself is a very destructive activity which causes habitat destruction, high levels of pollution, work-related social and health problems and significant contributions to climate change.[9] Imported coal will need to be shipped approximately 35 kilometers along the Pasur River, which flows through the Sundarbans, and which will therefore need to be dredged.[10] Not only are the environmental impacts of increased pollution from shipping coal cause for concern, the risks of environmental disasters are also heightened. During the last three years, three coal-carrying vessels sank in the Sundarbans. In December 2014, an oil tanker capsized, and the spilled oil spread to far corners of the forest with the flow of the Shela River. Plants and wildlife were seriously affected.[11] There is no doubt that the proposed Rampal and Orion power plants will have serious and irreversible impact on the ecology of the Sundarbans.
Climate change
The Sundarbans serves as a major repository (sink) of carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, making it a critical contributor to stabilising the global climate. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, increases emissions of carbon dioxide which exacerbates global warming and climate change. Temperatures are already increasing world-wide; 2016 is the warmest year on record, surpassing 2015 and other hot years.[12],[13] Climate change impacts, including rising sea levels and increased flooding, droughts, heat waves, storms and wildfires, will be acutely felt globally. Due to Bangladesh’s low-lying location, it is already one of the most climate vulnerable nations in the world.[14] Further, the Sundarbans acts as a barrier against frequent cyclones, storms and other natural disasters[15]; the plant’s operation will further exacerbate millions of coastal people’ vulnerability to natural disasters.
The Government of India established the National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change (NAFCC) in 2015 to meet the cost of adaptation to climate change.[16] Rather than build a climate-damaging coal-fired power plant, India should help Bangladesh developing renewable sources of energy, both respecting the environment and benefiting all inhabitants of the Sundarbans. The freshwater flow into the Sundarbans has already been substantially reduced due to both legal and illegal human activities, resulting in increases in siltation and salinity, which threaten to upset the overall balance and functioning of the ecosystem and its species.[10]
Peoples’ resistance
The Sundarbans is a fragile ecosystem, but a more sustainable balance between socio-economic development and conservation can still be achieved if the right choices are made. On the 26th of November 2016 a protest was organised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which attracted about 15,000 people. On the Global Day of Protest on the 7th of January 2017, over 4,000 people gathered in Dhaka, New Delhi, Melbourne, London and in other cities around the world to show support for the survival and preservation of the Sundarbans. On the 26th of January, at an 8-hour long hartal held to save the Sundarbans, police used teargas and water cannons against peaceful protesters and journalists, injuring approximately 100 people and arresting 5. Such unjust violence against these peaceful protests is a pattern that has unfortunately developed throughout the last several years. This is not acceptable and an indicator of an ailing democracy.
Next steps
We, the undersigned, have sent appeal letters to the Presidents, Prime Ministers and several Ministers of Bangladesh and India, to immediately take whatever steps are necessary to halt the coal-fired power plant projects and other commercial projects in the Sundarbans and its surroundings, and to increase investments in renewable solar and wind power. We also ask the governments to uphold the right to assemble and protect the safety of people that exercise this right, including the right to protest against government-approved development projects. We are now asking you, representatives of the UNESCO, to help us in our fight to protect and conserve this extremely ecologically valuable zone.
The world cannot afford to lose the Sundarbans.
With grave concern,
Amanda Tas,
Protect the Forest
Wally Menne,
South Africa
Kate Lappin,
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)

[1] UNESCO (2016-10-18).World Heritage Centre and IUCN call for relocation of Rampal power plant, a serious threat to the Sundarbans;
[2] UNESCO (2017). 41st Session of the World Heritage Committee;
[3] Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans, Nijera Kori & Waterkeepers Bangladesh (2016). Petition to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee concerning imminent threats posed by the proposed Rampal and Orion coal-fired power plants;
[4] National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (2017). To the UNESCO World Heritage Committee;
[5] Basit, M. A. (1995).Non-wood forest products from the mangrove forests of Bangladesh. FAO;
[6] IUCN & World Heritage Centre (2016).Report on the mission to the Sundarbans world heritage site, Bangladesh, from 22 to 28 March 2016;
[7] Bangladesh Awami League (2016). Rampal power plant will not harm the Sundarbans: HPM Sheikh Hasina;
[8] Aitken, G. (11-08-2016). Rampal coal plant: Indian coal dream fast becoming a nightmare for Bangladesh. The Ecologist;
[9] National Geographic Society (visited 2017). Coal;
[10] IUCN & World Heritage Centre (2016). Report on the mission to the Sundarbans world heritage site, Bangladesh, from 22 to 28 March 2016;
[11] Daily Star (13-01-2017). Coal vessel sinks near Sundarbans, all rescued;
[12] Science Daily (2017).2016 Edges 1998 as Warmest Year on Record;
[13] NASA (2016).2016 Climate Trends Continue to Break Records;
[14] The Guardian (20-01-2017).Bangladesh struggles to turn the tide on climate change as sea levels rise;
[15] IUCN & World Heritage Centre (2016).Report on the mission to the Sundarbans world heritage site, Bangladesh, from 22 to 28 March 2016;
[16] National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (2015).National Adaption Fund on Climate Change (NAFCC);


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One Comment

  1. The Prime Minister rejected the allegation that construction of coal-fired power plant at Rampal would damage the Sundarbans and urged those who are opposing coal-fired power plant not to misguide the people. She said there are coal-fired power plants in Australia and India.

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