The world's largest mangrove forest, home to the fast-disappearing Bengal tiger, is about to be destroyed by one of the world's oldest energy technologies. Scientists, environmentalists, and activists all say a giant incoming coal plant might altogether ruin one of Asia's most cherished natural habitats. India and Bangladesh are collaborating to build the new coal-fired station on the outskirts of the remarkable Sundarbans, a protected UNESCO World Heritage site that lies on the border of the two nations.
According to Yale's Environment 360, opposition to the monolithic Rampal project has been spreading fast among locals. Some 20,000 people recently rose up for a five day march against the plant. In response, Indian and Bangladeshi officials hastily approved the project over a Skype call—the original plan was to have a big inauguration ceremony that was open to the public.
The Sundarbans is a particularly impoverished region, too, and it's telling that so many people have fought back against the plant. Recent reports suggest that more than one third of children in the area are malnourished—so much so that many don't have the strength to walk until they're over four years old. It's lead to a strange and sad 'crawling' epidemic in the area that has nutritionists studying the region. Now, a massive coal plant is going to begin blowing toxic pollution in all of their faces, too.
Of course, the issue that has attracted international attention is the threat to the rare, diverse mangrove ecosystem, which biologists rank as among the most important on the planet.
The Sundarbans, image via NASA
Yale's Jeremy Hance reports on the potential devastation:
"Opponents say that the 1,320 megawatt project could devastate the Sundarbans, Bangladesh's largest forest and the nation's last stronghold of the Bengal tiger. They contend that water diversion to the plant, coupled with air and water pollution and heavy coal barge traffic, could leave the Sundarbans … an increasingly degraded ecosystem, potentially threatening the livelihoods of some of the half-million people who depend on the great mangrove forest."
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists are also worried that the plant will threaten the dozens of endangered species that call the Sundarbans home—ultra-rare animals like the Ganges river dolphin may end up getting snuffed out by coal. Then there's the acid rain. The tropical environment, combined with the sulfur emitted by the crude coal plant, makes dangerous acid rainfall fairly likely down the line.
Ugly stuff, and part of the reason that, under pressure, both the US and the World Bank have agreed to stop funding international coal projects. Even Bangladesh's Financial Express, a business newspaper, ran an editorial exhorting officials to halt the 1,300 megawatt power plant. "The Sundarbans … is a priceless asset of Bangladesh," Rahman Jahangir writes. "While rich archeological discoveries in the country's territory point to the glorious past of the nation, the Sundarbans is a living beauty, gifted by God to the Bagalees … Once lost, the rare and lone mangrove forest of the country will like buried underneath its soil as many archeological treasures now do."
The mangrove. Image: Yale
Finally, there's climate change. Bangladesh is consistently used as an example of the nations most vulnerable to warming temperatures and rising seas—it's not only low-lying and already exposed to cyclones, but it's poor and incredibly populous, too. Floods have already caused massive tragedy in the nation, and it's only going to get worse. What used to be a welcome part of the season, and crucial to farming, is now tearing communities apart. Hundreds have been killed in recent years, and millions left homeless.
The Rampal plant isn't going to single-handedly tip Bangladesh past the brink, and the brunt of the blame lies with long-industrialized nations like the US. But there's something sadly ironic about the prospect of building a huge new coal plant in a country about to get smashed by climate change. It's a microcosm of the modern ills of coal, really. It's a prime example of why it's high time we recognized coal as a dirty fuel of the past that's long overstayed its welcome. And maybe let's resign it to the dustbin of history before it steamrolls the environment and human civilization alike.