By Syful Islam
DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The government of Bangladesh has indicated it is unlikely to abandon its push to build more coal-fired power plants despite growing opposition among local people and environmentalists.
At least four people died and many were injured at Banshkhali in Chittagong earlier this month, when police opened fire at violent protests against the construction of a 1,320-megawatt (MW) coal plant in the southeastern coastal area.
In response, the government unofficially said on April 9 that work at the $2.4 billion power plant would be suspended for 15 days, while it carries out an assessment of the plant’s environmental impact, led by Bangladeshi and foreign scientists.
Dhaka plans to set up 25 coal-fired power plants by 2022, to generate 23,692 MW, in order to meet rising electricity demand. Of the total, 16 will be built by the public sector and nine by the private sector.
Environmentalists say the risks those fossil fuel plants could pose to nature and the livelihoods of local people are not being properly investigated.
Anu Muhammad, member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, said the Banshkhali plant does not have an approved environmental impact assessment (EIA), yet private company SS Power Ltd - a joint venture between Bangladeshi and Chinese firms - has already started work at the site.
“The site selected is located in a coastal area where climate change risk is high," he said. "Establishing such plants in coastal areas will be dangerous."
Monowar Islam, secretary of the government’s power division, said Bangladesh is a power-hungry country that needs huge amounts of electricity to develop.
It is highly dependent on natural gas reserves that are dwindling, he said. “We have no other options but to go for coal - the long-term solution is coal-based power plants,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Currently only 2 percent of Bangladesh’s power is generated using coal.
Islam said the advanced technology now used in coal-fired plants would curb the environmental risks cited by opponents.
The Banshkhali plant has yet to get its EIA report vetted by the department of environment, but the plant already has site clearance, he noted.
The plant cannot be relocated, as the process to select the site took five years, he added.
There is fierce opposition to another planned coal plant in Rampal, near the protected Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. The plant is a joint project between the state-run power companies of Bangladesh and India.
India has previously tried to set up coal-fired power plants in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, which would have used the same technology, but was forced to cancel those projects amid environmental protests.
“The government of Bangladesh is overlooking people’s concerns,” said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.
Even the department of environment has raised questions over the EIA for the Rampal plant, conducted by the ministry of energy, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There was no public and experts’ participation in the EIA. Laws have not been followed properly in this case,” Rahman said.
The government did not explore alternative sites for the Rampal plant even though environmentalists and local people have waged a long-running campaign against the possible damage it could cause to the low-lying Sundarbans, a world heritage site.
“There is administrative arrogance,” Rahman said.
UNESCO officials recently visited the Sundarbans to assess the possible impact of the power plant on the flora and fauna of the mangrove forests.
In the past, when oil tankers and boats carrying fertilizer sank in the Shela River near the Sundarbans, the U.N. body expressed concern over possible harm to biodiversity.
Ainun Nishat, a respected environmentalist and professor emeritus at Brac University in Dhaka, said the department of environment had approved the EIA report for Rampal - but with many conditions attached.
“Everything should be as per the laws concerned. The government should fulfill all these conditions before setting up the plant,” he said.
Md Khalequzzaman, professor of geology at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, said Rampal was not the best place for a coal-fired power plant.
“There are valid concerns about the proposed plant being so close to the Sundarbans,” he said by e-mail.
“No country with a commitment to preserve ecologically sensitive areas, including India, will allow such a plant on their ground, and Bangladesh should not allow it either.”
Bangladesh’s past record points to a risk of spills, thermal pollution and air pollution associated with power plant operations, he added.
“The Sundarbans is too important an ecosystem to fiddle or experiment with,” he said.
Bangladesh needs electricity, but it should be produced in less environmentally valuable areas, and at least 25 kilometers away from forests, he added.
Khalequzzaman urged the government to look at alternative energy scenarios, and to come up with a long-term energy policy that fits with the global shift towards sustainable development.
Abu Naser Khan, chairman of the Save Environment Movement, said the Rampal plant would one day turn into “cancer” for the Sundarbans.
“The government should give importance to environmental concerns and local people's anxiety before setting up any coal-fired power plant,” he added.
(Reporting by Syful Islam; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)