Rampal The largest mangrove forests in the world stretch in the wetlands of the mighty rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna on the Bay of Bengal. Rice farmers and fishermen have a decent life there. But now a coal-fired power plant is to go into operation near the Sundarbans before the end of this year.
With 168 million inhabitants, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Once the power plant has reached full capacity, it is expected to generate 1,320 megawatts of electricity – as much as the country’s largest coal-fired power plant. According to official statements, it should help cover the country’s energy needs and improve the standard of living.
The Maitree Super Thermal Power Project, popularly known as the Rampal coal-fired power plant, is expected to burn around 4.7 million tons of coal annually and thus emit around 15 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In addition, around 12,000 tons of coal are said to be transported by ship through the Sundarbans mangrove forests every day, raising concerns about water pollution.
Since much of Bangladesh is at or just below sea level, it suffers from severe flooding during hurricanes and erratic rains. Millions of people live at risk of being displaced by extreme weather events.
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Just two weeks ago, 20,000 people were affected by the flooding caused by hurricane Sitrang. 24 people died, 10,000 lost their homes and more than 6,000 hectares of crops were destroyed. “If things get bad, we’ll have to sell our property and emigrate,” says farmer Luftar Rahman.
There must be no new fossil fuel projects if the world is to limit warming to the 1.5 degree Celsius target set in the Paris Agreement, leading scientists have warned. Despite being one of the lowest-emitting countries in the world, Bangladesh has committed to reducing its overall emissions by 22 percent by 2030.
Nevertheless, the coal-guzzling Maitree Super Thermal Power Project was built because the country’s thirst for energy is great: In October, the power grid collapsed, so that 80 percent of Bangladesh were affected by a seven-hour power blackout.
Such prolonged power outages affect businesses, including the garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of exports – Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment exporter after China. “We are desperately waiting to start generating electricity in Rampal,” said Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to the Bangladesh leader. “This power plant will definitely help alleviate our energy concerns.”
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At the same time, Bangladesh is demanding funds for poorer countries to adapt to the devastating effects of global warming. Until May 2022, the country chaired the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a coalition of countries most at risk from global warming. According to estimates by the World Bank, Bangladesh could suffer the equivalent of 570 million euros in damage from climate-related extreme weather events.
Land has clean resources
Bangladesh has two active coal-fired power plants and experts say it needs one more. In June, it halted the operation of diesel power plants because of rising fuel prices. “We need to invest in power transmission and power distribution systems,” emphasizes Khondaker Golam Moazzem of the Center for Policy Dialogue think tank in Dhaka. “That would be much more beneficial for the country at the moment.”
The country also has cleaner resources: “Bangladesh has huge potential for natural gas,” says economist and environmentalist Anu Mohammad in Dhaka. “Onshore and offshore gas exploration and development may be a better option compared to coal.”
Renewable energies already supply millions of households in Bangladesh. “Bangladesh has one of the fastest growing residential solar energy systems,” says Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Center for Climate Change and Development. “Another option is offshore wind energy. With the latest technologies available, it is conceivable that wind energy generated in the Bay of Bengal could meet not only the needs of Bangladesh but also regions in neighboring India and Myanmar.”
The Rampal coal mine is funded by the governments of Bangladesh and India. According to the authorities, the Sundarbans mangrove forests were selected because of the existing water and shipping facilities. The coal for the power plant should also come from India.
Mangrove forests in Bangladesh
The Sundarbans, meaning “beautiful forest” in Bengali, developed over thousands of years from the mighty rivers of the Indian subcontinent. The Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna leave valuable sediments which they collect over thousands of kilometers from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.
“The mangrove forests are a natural barrier to the adverse effects of climate change, and if they are affected, the tens of millions of people living in this coastal delta will also suffer,” warns Mohammad. “There are many alternatives to power generation. But there is no alternative to the Sundarbans.” According to experts, mangrove forests are even more effective than normal forests when it comes to sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
“In my grandfather’s day, all the rice we needed was harvested on our land. There was enough rice and fish for everyone,” says 60-year-old Abul Kalam, who has lived his entire life in the Sundarbans. “When this power plant is built, there will be no more fish in our area. And how can we grow anything when they discharge toxic sewage here?”