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A breakthrough for the Sundarbans

  • Published at 06:02 pm March 18th, 2015
A breakthrough for the Sundarbans

I somehow suspect climate change is the last thing on your mind when our political climate has changed to Dante’s Inferno in the last two months.

Unfortunately, the climate has been the same way, though you can replace the “months” with “centuries.” And if you are a rational enough person factoring scientific knowledge into your decision-making and priority-setting, you probably want to be paying attention.

The Category 5 Cyclone Pam just pummeled the tiny island nation of Vanuatu and its 250,000 odd population. About 90% of the capital’s infrastructure was damaged.

The president made an impassioned plea -- ironically from a disaster risk reduction conference -- and said: “We have lost years of development progress … help us rebuild everything.”

Consider the human casualty and misery of extreme events such as this -- which have already become more dangerous due to climate change and only getting worse faster and faster. In Vanuatu, over 100,000 people have been affected. During cyclone Sidr, more than 10,000 of our people were killed.

Does it really matter to the bereaving mother if her son died from a flash flood or a petrol bomb? Is it fair if we do not pay attention to those who we are condemning to death from rising seas and super storms while we reserve our attention solely to those killed from more visible causes?

Unfortunately, we are hard at work killing our best line of defense against those impending disasters -- the Sundarbans. The mangroves act as a powerful natural shield that protects millions of our people who live close to the coastline.

The Rampal coal power plant has been widely criticised as spelling a death sentence for our treasured forest. But while many expected that the December oil spill would serve as the urgent wake-up call that it was, the government-sanctioned report assessing the spill went so far as to claim limited impacts without even collecting empirical data!

On the other hand, our resourceful local researchers carried out a much more extensive and scientific study and found concrete empirical evidence of drastic loss of microorganisms and larger life forms in spill-affected areas of the forest.

Rampal, and other major infrastructures close to the Sundarbans, only promises more man-made disasters -- all the while as they contribute to weaken our defense system against natural disasters made worse by climate change.

Thankfully, activists and advocates who have been protesting the Rampal coal plant from day-one can celebrate a small, but incredibly important, victory. Norway’s pension fund -- a major wealth fund with over $850bn -- just announced they are withdrawing over Tk400cr worth of investments from the Indian NTPC which is jointly setting up the Rampal plant.

The reason? Rampal.

The decision follows their Council on Ethics report which wrote: “There is an unacceptable risk that NTPC will contribute to severe environmental damage through the building and operation of the power plant at Rampal, including related transportation services.”

To put this decision in a perhaps more relatable context, imagine if Khaleda Zia suddenly said: “Our blockades and hartals are contributing to severe damage. I withdraw them fully because of this unacceptable risk.”

This is therefore a major moment and a well-earned victory for all the individuals of conscience who have spoken out, written, and marched to ensure that the world knows about the destruction this project will cause.

Now the first domino has fallen. The strong statement by the Council on Ethics, and the major Norway fund’s momentous decision will strengthen the alliance of local and international activists gaining ground in getting other major international investors to withdraw as well.

About 70% of the $1.82bn that Rampal is estimated to cost, has to be borrowed from big financial institutions. Norway’s decision now establishes Rampal as not only just an environmentally devastating project, but a financially risky one as well.

Unfortunately, the government has already invested significantly into this project without a proper and internationally acceptable environmental impact assessment, showing utter disregard for important concerns brought to their attention from all sections of society.

But, as international pressure mounts to desert this project, it is not a question of whether, but when it will finally be abandoned. The more the government fails to see this, the more taxpayers’ money they will lose to protect a dying project.

Fortunately, out of the dirty coal ashes will rise the Sundarbans like a phoenix, and continue to live and protect like it has done for millennia. 

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