A few days ago, the Bangladesh government rather smugly declared that UNESCO had given a go-ahead to the controversial Rampal coal-fired power plant to be constructed near the Sundarbans. The people were confused. So, had the environmentalists been talking through the back of their heads all this time about the risk Rampal posed to the world heritage mangrove forest? Was there actually no risk to the rich biodiversity of the region? Would Rampal not stifle the roar of the tigers after all, and the forest would continue to flourish with all its diverse flora and fauna?
Activists, environmentalists and conscious citizens, of course, were not convinced. After all, an international institution like UNESCO had issued grave warnings about the fallout of such a power plant in close proximity to the forest. Would it retract its stand so easily? Would it turn a blind eye to all the facts and figures which unmistakably pointed to the damage that the coal-fired power project would cause? The doubts expressed by the experts about the government’s announcement soon proved true.
To put it bluntly, the government had lied. UNESCO had in no way given a go-ahead to the Rampal power plant project. In fact, it maintained its stance against the project and stated this in unequivocal terms during the 41st session of its World Heritage Committee held in Krakow, Poland recently.
The Bangladesh government’s claim that UNESCO has given clearance to go ahead with the Rampal coal-fired power plant project, is nowhere evident in the decisions made public by the organisation. The final report on the decisions adopted during the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee was published on Sunday, 30 July. The report stated that the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had called for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to be carried out regarding the impact of the Rampal power project on the Sundarbans and the southwest region of the Bangladesh.
The UNESCO committee clearly requested that no large industrial infrastructure be constructed in the region until this assessment was completed. The conditions laid down by the UNESCO regarding work on the Rampal power plant remained intact. The government’s statement that UNESCO clearance has been granted to go ahead with the Rampal project was not correct. It was a blatant lie.
The World Heritage Committee meeting ended on 12 July and the full text of the decisions taken at the meeting was published 18 days later. However, while the meeting was ongoing, the Bangladesh foreign ministry on 7 July issued an official statement claiming that on 2 July UNESCO has withdrawn its objection to the Rampal power plant and had also decided to cancel the decision to drop the Sundarbans from the world heritage list.
When questions were raised in this regard, the Bangladesh prime minister’s energy advisor Toufiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, upon return from the meeting in Krakow, Poland, told a press conference on 10 July that for the time being the government will not give permission for any large industrial infrastructure near the Sundarbans, but the work on the Rampal coal-based power plant would not be halted.
The World Heritage Committee’s Decision 7 taken at the meeting stated that constant efforts would have to be made to fully implement all the other recommendations made by the 2016 Reactive Monitoring mission.
In this regard, Bangladesh’s state minister for energy, mineral resources and power Nasrul Hamid said that UNESCO’s main objection had been to the Rampal power plant. In their draft decision, they had called for the Rampal power plant to be shelved. But, he claimed, in face of Bangladesh government’s arguments, they lifted their objection to the Rampal project. So, there was no longer any obstacle to the project.
However, member secretary of national committee for the protection of oil, gas, mineral resources and power and ports, Anu Muhammad, has said that the government made a commitment at the UNESCO meeting to accept their decision. Since the government has accepted UNESCO’s final decision, then work on Rampal must halt.
The decisions published by the World Heritage Committee proved once again that the statements made by the government to the effect that UNESCO had withdrawn its objection to the Rampal project, are false. The bottom line remains, if the Sundarbans is to be saved, the Rampal project must be cancelled.
Central committee member of the international organisation Water Keepers Alliance, Sharif Jamil, who was present as an observer at the 41st session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, said UNESCO had made its stand concerning the Rampal project clear in the reactive monitoring report. They recommended that no industries and infrastructure, including Rampal, be set up around the Sundarbans. He said the statement made by the prime minister’s energy advisor Toufiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury upon his return from the World Heritage Committee meeting, to the effect that UNESCO had approved of the Rampal project, was untrue.
In the Decision 11 of the two-page report’s section on Bangladesh, it is said that the decision taken by the Bangladesh government to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in the Sundarbans and the southwest region must be completed as soon as possible and sent to the World Heritage Committee. After that, the World Heritage Committee will send this on to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for examination. Decision 11 also stated that an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the conditions was to be submitted by 1 December 2018 for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 43rd session in 2019.
The World Heritage Committee decisions regarding the Sundarbans
The World Heritage Committee
- Having examined Document WHC/17/41.COM/7B,
- Recalling Decision 39 COM 7B.8, adopted at its 39th session (Bonn, 2015),
- Welcomes the State Party’s decision not to approve the Orion power plant and Phase II of the Rampal power plant,
- Also welcomes the State Party’s decision to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the South-West region of Bangladesh, including the property, and requests the State Party to ensure that any large-scale industrial and/or infrastructure developments will not be allowed to proceed before the SEA has been completed, and to submit a copy of the SEA to the World Heritage Centre for review by IUCN, in accordance with Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines, as soon as it is available;
- Also welcomes the information provided on ecological monitoring and notes with concern that sea level rise, salt intrusion and reductions in fresh water flows are posing a threat to the Sundarbans’ ecosystem and that the property is particularly vulnerable to impacts from these threats;
- Takes note of the critical importance of transboundary cooperation between the States Parties of Bangladesh and India on the World Heritage properties “The Sundarbans” (Bangladesh) and “Sundarbans National Park” (India), further welcomes the efforts made by both States Parties to enhance collaboration, and urges the State Party of Bangladesh to fully implement the recommendations made by the 2016 mission in relation to ensuring adequate freshwater inflows to the property;
- Also requests the State Party to make constant efforts to fully implement all the other recommendations made by the 2016 Reactive Monitoring Mission;
- Welcomes furthermore the development of a draft “National Oil Spill and Chemical Contingency Plan” (NOSCOP), and further requests the State Party to ensure adequate provision of funding and human resources for the implementation of the plan once it is adopted, and to provide further information and data on the monitoring of long-term impacts from recent shipping incidents involving spills of hazardous materials in proximity to the property and requests furthermore the State Party to put in place a management system for shipping to minimize negative impacts on the property, including from associated activities such as dredging;
- Reiterates its request to the State Party to undertake the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for any future dredging of the Passur River to include an assessment of impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property, as requested by the Committee;
- Also takes note of the mission’s concerns about the likely environmental impacts of the Rampal coal-fired power plant on the property arising from air and water pollution, a substantial increase in shipping and dredging, and additional removal of freshwater from an already increasingly saline environment and requests furthermore the State Party to Decisions adopted during the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee (Krakow, 2017) ensure that these impacts are comprehensively assessed as part of the SEA and adequate technological measures are put in place to mitigate these impacts and to put in place adequate measures to mitigate these impacts, in order to avoid damage to the OUV of the property;
- Finally requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 December 2018, an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 43rd session in 2019.