Why India-Bangladesh Need To Prevent Destruction Of Sunderbans

The Bangladesh government’s decision to set up the Rampal coal-fired power plant in the periphery of the Sundarbans, resulted in intense protests from activists within the country, and from international organisations, including the United Nations. But the plant — a joint venture between the Indian and Bangladeshi state-run power corporations — has hardly evoked any reaction from Indians, despite it threatening the survival of the Sundarbans.

Professor Tuhin Ghosh, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University in Kolkata says, there is a perception among people here that effluents from the power plant will have an effect on only Bangladesh. 

Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.

“People here think that it's Bangladesh’s problem and not India’s. Hence, there hasn’t been any public outcry against the construction of the power plant at Rampal yet,” he says.

Honey collectors hunt searching for honeycombs in Sunderbans, West Bengal

Also Read: Sunderbans: Welcome To The Land Of Beautiful Forests

Sunderbans Is A Source of Food & Protection For Millions In Bangladesh & India

While Bangladesh owns 60 percent of the forested delta, India retains the rest of it. The mangrove forest is the largest in the world, and is home to several endangered species such as the Royal Bengal tiger and the Irrawady dolphins.

This not only exposes the reserved forest to destruction, but also the livelihood of communities dependent on it, claim experts.

In a letter to the UNESCO, made public on 3 July, an alliance of international NGOs including National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (NCSS) from Bangladesh, US-based Earthjustice and Waterkeeper Alliance wrote: “The development of coal infrastructures in the Sundarbans would not only exacerbate climate change and its impacts, but also send a wrong message that coal is still an energy option for developing countries whereas the world is moving towards a consensus on the need to immediately phase out coal.”

Mangroves act as an ecological barrier or bio-shield, protecting the shores from hurricanes, tsunamis and storms

It further states: “In addition to being the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to the endangered Bengal tigers, river dolphins, grey wolves, fishing cats, otters, terrapins, and the Hilsa fishery, the Sundarbans ecosystem is a major carbon sink and a source of food and protection from storms for millions of people in Bangladesh and India.”

Also Read: Under Threat: B’desh Coal Plant May Spell Disaster for Sunderbans

Effects on Mangrove Forests In West Bengal

Professor Tuhin Ghosh says that emissions from the Rampal power plant — scheduled to start operations in 2021 — will have devastating effects on the mangrove forests in West Bengal. “It has both short term and long term impact on this fragile ecosystem. Fly ash and the waste water discharged from the power plant in Rampal can cause serious pollution to the soil and water. The discharge hot water from the cooling station will also reduce the dissolved oxygen in the water and create problems for the flora and fauna. And, since the waterways are connected and chemical waste from the power plant released into Poshur river in Rampal will pollute the waters of the entire Sundarbans,” the professor told this reporter.

Mangroves depend on a delicate balance of saline water and fresh water, and any imbalance can easily result in their destruction. 

The trees are salt tolerant and can thus thrive in areas of high soil salinity where other vegetation cannot survive. They also act as an ecological barrier or bio-shield, protecting the shores from hurricanes, tsunamis and storms. They also prevent soil erosion as their unusually long roots break the force of the waves.

Also Read: Rising Sea Levels Cause Migration in Sunderbans

Succumbing To The Effects of Fly Ash

Speaking about how fly ash from the power plant can affect the vegetation, Ghosh says, “Usually the salt inside the soil comes out on the surface due to capillary action and we can see salt encrustation on the top soil. Rainfall during monsoon washes out this surface salt. When fly ash settles on the soil, it prevents this action and the salt used to be trapped inside the soil, increases the salinity of the soil. As per the common belief that mangroves are salt tolerant, they will not be able to adapt to the ever-increasing levels of soil salinity.”

Any decrease in the population of the low salt-tolerant mangroves will impact experience adverse effect from its ecosystem services, the population of animals that feed on it.

The professor adds that the first to succumb to the effects of the fly ash will be the low-salt tolerant mangrove species. “

Mangroves can be roughly divided into three varieties: one that can tolerate high salinity, the other can survive in only low levels of salinity, and few can tolerate wide range of salinity. The low salt-tolerant species such as Sonneratia, Heritiera, Phoenix and Nypa are likely to be the first victims,” says Ghosh.

What’s more, a majority of the herbivorous animals in the area depend on these low-salt tolerant plants and trees for food. “Any decrease in the population of the low salt-tolerant mangroves will impact experience adverse effect from its ecosystem services, the population of animals that feed on it,” says Dr V Selvam, the former lead scientist at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, who has been working extensively to study the impact of waste from thermal power plants on mangroves in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu.

He says that sludge, liquid waste and fly ash from the Rampal thermal power plant would interfere with the mangrove roots’ water absorption process. 

“Also, when the fly ash settles on the leaves, they obstruct photosynthesis. Over a period of time, with lesser production of food, the trees weaken, they produce fewer fruit and flowers or their quality become poor, and the plants may eventually die,” says Selvam.

“We have observed these impacts in the mangroves in Thoothukudi industrial district and it is most likely that Sundarbans may suffer a similar fate,” he adds.

Need Joint Action to Protect Sundarbans: Bangladeshi Activist

Meanwhile, Bangladeshi professor and activist Anu Muhammad, who has been advocating against the setting up of the thermal power plant near the Sundarbans from 2010 says that efforts have been underway from 2016 to make the Indian government realise the impact Rampal plant will have on its share of the mangroves. “I had visited New Delhi in 2016 to speak with the concerned authorities. We had plans of holding a joint convention in India to spread awareness about this issue but my visa application kept getting rejecting since 2017,” says Muhammad who has even received death threats for his opposition to the project.

He adds that, the thermal power plant in Rampal would act as a magnet for other industries such as cement and oil-based power plants, to be set up in the vicinity which would aggravate the environmental risks manifold.

We Must Fight Together To Protect Our Green Treasure

On 8 September, 2014 National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF) of Bangladesh and Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF) of India had sent a letter of request to the Prime Minister of India to stop participation in the Rampal coal fired power plant project. The letter stated: “Our country should not be a partner in the destruction of environment and ecology of the largest and the richest mangrove forest on our planet that provides the Bay of Bengal eco-system with the largest nursery of fish.”

“The Government of India should not involve itself in an activity that threatens the livelihood of the citizens of our country, particularly the hundred thousand fishers and wild honey collectors dependent on the natural resources of the Sundarban forests.”

“Since this power plant is being set up by a joint venture of Indian and Bangladeshi power corporations, it is imperative that we fight together to protect our green treasure,” Muhammad adds.

(Ankita Sengupta is a journalist based in Chennai, and has been writing on environmental issues for nearly five years. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

. Read more on Environment by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsIn Pics: A Riot of Red & White at Spain’s San Fermin Festival . Read more on Environment by The Quint.