UN Urges Bangladesh to Scrap Coal-Fired Power Plant Near Tiger Forest

Pressure is building on India to comply with the World Heritage Convention by protecting the precious Sundarbans through the rejection of a coal-fired coal plant proposal.

Satellite Image of the Sundarbans
The tidal delta of the Sundarbans is home to tigers and river dolphins and is a vast nursery for fish, shrimp and crabs that feed millions of people. The UN recently urged Bangladesh to scrap a coal-fired power plant planned nearby due to pollution risks. (NASA Earth Observatory)

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The Sundarbans—a vast mangrove wetland along the southwestern coast of Bangladesh that’s home to abundant wildlife, including endangered tigers—yields million pounds of fish, shrimp and crab each year. This is healthy, sustainable, affordable food in a country where roughly 69 million people, or 43 percent of the population, survive on less than $1.25 per day. But the governments of India and Bangladesh plan to build a coal-fired power plant on the edge of this World Heritage wetland. They claim it will help address poor Bangladeshis’ need for electricity, but they ignore that fact that the plant would emit mercury into the air for miles around, contaminating the aquatic food chain and silently poisoning millions of people. 

While poor Bangladeshis indeed need electricity, they are calling for truly sustainable development near an ecosystem that sustains them both physically and spiritually. "There are many alternatives to electricity production; there is no alternative to the Sundarbans" is a popular rallying cry.  ​

Last month a monitoring mission from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommended that the proposed power plant be “cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location where it would not impact negatively” on the Sundarbans. The report recognized several threats from the plant, planned for Rampal, including air and water pollution, increased shipping and dredging and the cumulative impact of industrial infrastructure on the Sundarbans ecosystem.

The UNESCO monitoring mission report also showed that:

  • The Rampal plant is not applying the best available technology or the highest international standards for preventing damage to the Sundarbans.
  • Any flooding, spills or leakage from the waste ash ponds at the Rampal plant are a major risk factor and could cause serious and long-term harm to the wetlands.
  • Mercury contamination is of particular concern, and current technology is insufficient to prevent it.
  • The Sundarbans is located in the country’s “wind risk zone,” which is prone to cyclones and storm surges. Air pollutants could easily reach the World Heritage site, located 40 miles from the planned coal plant.
  • If the government proceeds with the plant, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee should consider including the Sundarbans on the World Heritage in Danger list in 2017.

Renowned Bangladeshi human rights lawyer and activist Sultana Kamal is the convener of the National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans, a coalition of 53 grassroots organizations in Bangladesh that petitioned UNESCO and the IUCN to cancel the project earlier this year. Ms. Kamal praised the UN report for its science-based recommendations.

“It adds to a growing body of independent expert analyses showing the many ways the Rampal coal plant’s inadequate pollution controls and inappropriate site location will harm the Sundarbans,” Ms. Kamal said.

The National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans published several expert studies on the Rampal plant in September, highlighting the risks the plant poses to the Sundarbans, including toxic air pollution from outdated technologies, unsafe storage of toxic coal ash waste in an earthquake-prone tidal floodplain and coal dust from ships and stockpiles that could enter wetlands.

“Our government must take immediate action to cancel the Rampal plant and associated river dredging and pursue exclusively clean energy for all Bangladeshis that safeguards our water, air, fisheries, forests, wildlife and health. Clean energy technologies are now less expensive than coal-fired power,” Ms. Kamal added.

Opponents of the power plant have also focused on pressuring the government of India to stop its financing and joint management of the power plant project. On October 18, civil society groups in India delivered a letter to the prime minister urging him to cancel the coal plant. Groups in Bangladesh attempted to march to the Indian embassy with a similar letter, but were met with police violence. Nearly one million people around the world have signed a petition targeting India’s Export-Import bank and its bondholders. A new financial analysis also exposes U.S.-based JP Morgan Chase, Vanguard and AIG as bondholders of India’s Export-Import bank.

Ms. Kamal recently published a briefing on India’s international legal obligations not to harm the Sundarbans World Heritage site of Bangladesh. “As a party to the World Heritage Convention,” she writes, “India has agreed ‘not to take any deliberate measures which might damage, directly or indirectly, the cultural and natural heritage…situated on the territory of other parties to this convention.’ India’s deliberate measures to finance and operate the Rampal coal-fired power plant would, as the UNESCO and IUCN experts concluded, damage the Sundarbans. India should immediately cancel all plans to participate in the financing, construction, operation or management of the Rampal project.”

Jessica Lawrence is a conservation biologist who has worked with Earthjustice since 2008 researching and presenting the most recent and compelling science for our international climate and energy cases. She also supports environmental coalitions advocating for better protection for UNESCO World Heritage sites including Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada/USA), Papahānaumokuākea (USA), Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Lamu Old Town (Kenya), and the Sundarbans (Bangladesh).

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.