Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

New Power Plant Threatens Agriculture and Food Security in Bangladesh

The government of Bangladesh is advancing plans to install a coal-based thermal power plant in the area of Rampal in the Bagerhaat district. This project is only 10 kilometers away from the Sundarbans, an environmentally critical area, and threatens its very existence.

The Rampal power plant will have hazardous impacts on agriculture and food security, diversity of plants and wildlife, fisheries, the life of local inhabitants, and the area’s topography. The power plant will generate 1,320 megawatts of electricity and will occupy 1,834 acres of land, which is mostly agricultural and shrimp aquaculture ponds.

The distance of the plant from the Sundarbans cannot be considered safe. Its impact on agriculture and food security is so fatal that we cannot sustain and support the project. Unfortunately, the government is going ahead by ignoring public protest.

Though an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was published in January 2013, its methodology, findings, and recommendations have been highly criticized and even revoked by many specialists because of its deficiencies in estimations and disclosures of truth, as well as for its ambiguity.

The EIA report by the Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services took an area of 10 kilometer radius from the stack location of the proposed plant and showed 75.4 percent (26,344 hectares) is Net Cultivable Area (NCA) in their study scope of 34,955 hectares. It suggests that only 706 hectares of NCA will be compromised by the project site, but it actually has a lethal and circular impact on agriculture.

Once the plant is in operation, it needs huge amounts of coal supplies and the materials used in it will emit hazardous chemicals such as sulfur, carbon dioxide, cadmium, radium, arsenic, lead, mercury and nickel. Reportedly, 220 tons of different toxic gases will be discharged daily from the plant unless they are treated appropriately before emission.

These gases will be spread out by wind and affect the people, trees, soil and livestock. The soil texture (sand, silt and clay) will be damaged by the discharged toxic chemicals, and it will extensively decrease land fertility and production over time.

Interestingly, within 743 hectares of land of the proposed plant, 706 hectares (95 percent) is agricultural land. The EIA report says that 459 of the 706 hectares is a damage-free area, and the lost production is only 467 tons of crops, but that is simply an underestimation of the consequences.

The EIA report also shows annual production loss of paddy is about 9,455 metric tons (project area 467 tons and study area 8,988 tons).

The air, odor and sound pollution will affect local inhabitants and cattle so badly that it will be hardly possible for people to live and cultivate outside of the study area. The study area now produces 62,353 metric tons of rice and 140,461 metric tons of other crops annually.

The EIA report also estimates that the livestock and poultry population per household in the study area comprises three cattle, two buffaloes, four goats, one sheep, five ducks and six chickens.

The power plant will reduce the livestock grazing area, and the wastes from coal such as fly ashes and bottom ashes will contaminate air and water. This will make the livestock vulnerable to diseases and will affect the income level of households and farms simultaneously.

The most deadly impact will be on fisheries. The fishery resources of the project area are enriched with around 120 aquatic fauna, including hilsha, taposhi, bhetki, parsheand, rita, faisha and tulardandi, to name a few from the long list.

The Passur River is a source of larvae for the shrimp and the confluence of rivers provide some unique places for the propagation of fish.

The aquatic species are already facing extinction due to a number of different factors, such as the hindrance of fish migratory routes, changes to the geomorphological processes of  rivers, rapid siltation of  fish habitats, squeezing of spawning and feeding grounds, and the expansion of culture fisheries.

If the coal power plant is installed, it will accelerate the extinction process of the fisheries. The plant will require 9,150 cubic meters of water per hour from the Passur River for its operation. The discharged water will be toxic and have a destructive effect on the fisheries.

The oil and chemical wastes from coal-carrying vessels will contaminate the water. The Passur River will be the first victim of the power plant, followed by the Passur-Chunkuri confluence, Maidara, and Tidal Khal.

Mangrove-supported habitat will also suffer, and shrimp farms and homestead fish ponds will be no exception.

Whatever report the government published to get the environmental clearance is totally a whitewash. The benefits of this project can never outweigh the consequences.

This initiative must be stopped at any cost. This project will not only hamper Bangladesh in food and agriculture, but also make it vulnerable to natural disasters and calamities that we can barely imagine.