Protests over Bangladesh coal-fired power plant near Sundarbans

Sun, 4 Aug 2013

Author: Syful Islam

DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Environmentalists and activists are protesting the Bangladesh government’s plan to build a massive coal-fired power plant close to the Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest and a World Heritage Site.

They say the authorities have not considered the impact of the plant on the Sundarbans’ ecosystem and the forest’s role as a valuable coastal defence against extreme weather – such as the two cyclones that battered the area in 2007 and 2009, affecting millions of people and severely damaging buildings and cropland.

Coal-fired power also is a heavy contributor to climate change, and Bangladesh is considered one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, changes in weather patterns and more severe storms.

The 1,320 megawatt power plant, to be built within 14 km (9 miles) of the Sundarbans, will be jointly funded by Bangladesh and India under agreements signed last April. The Sundarbans lie mainly along the southwest coast of Bangladesh but a small portion is in Indian territory.

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the Ramsar Convention, has said it believes the biodiversity of the Sundarbans will face tremendous challenges once the plant goes into operation, and has expressed its concern and asked the government for detailed information on its plans.

The 1971 Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands” and their resources.

Bangladesh has sizeable coal reserves, and a consultant for the project said the government had no option but to go for coal-fired plants to meet the growing demand for electricity in this impoverished nation because the alternatives were more expensive.

COAL CHEAPER

“Electricity generation with fuel oil or gas is much costlier than coal. Besides, the country’s gas reserve is very nominal. So we have no other scope but to use coal for power generation,” said consultant Azizur Rahman.

Efforts will be made to minimise the impact of the project on the environment and on the Sundarbans, he said. “With modern technologies, many developed countries nowadays even have coal-based power plants inside their cities,” he said.

The government meanwhile announced a 15-year tax waiver to attract private companies interested in bidding for coal-fired electricity production contracts. Companies will enjoy the waiver if they sign contracts with the government by June 30, 2020, provided they start generating electricity by June 30, 2023.

The initial environmental examination of the Sundarbans project was carried out by a government organisation, the Water Resources Ministry’s Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Service, which the environmentalists charge is not an impartial body.

This was followed by an Environmental Impact Assessment, but before this had been completed authorities evicted 2,500 families from the 1,830 acres of land acquired for the plant and began filling in 250 acres of the land.

Sushanto Kumar Das, president of the Farmland Protection Committee in Rampal, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that people evicted from the project area had lost their incomes.

“The farmlands were producing both paddy (rice) and fish. More than 3,500 families were dependent on the lands,” he said.

Das said the mangrove forest had saved the coastal area during fierce storms, but would be at risk from smoke and ash fallout from the plant. If it is lost, “the area, close to the sea, will be hard hit by storms,” he said. He said he also feared that water use for the plant from the Pashur River would leave less drinking water available for people living in the area.

Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, an environmental science professor at Khulna University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone that the government had ignored the impact of the power plant on the ecosystem and wildlife of the Sundarbans.

INDIA’S ROLE

He said that India, facing massive protests and legal barriers, had failed to build two coal power plants planned for the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. “So India has arranged for Bangladesh to build a coal-fired plant in Rampal as an experiment, to set an example for those (it wants to build) in 2017,” he said.

The Bangladesh government did not consider the impact of the plant on the environment and the forest in this case, Chowdhury claimed. The forest, he said, may be vulnerable to ‘acid rain’ from chemicals released by the plant, and chemicals could also cause human health problems.

Chowdhury suggested setting up several tidal power plants in coastal areas instead of a coal-based plant, taking into account the environmental and climate impact.

Abdul Matin, member secretary of the ‘National Committee to Protect Sundarbans,’ said the government’s decision to build a coal power plant was self-destructive.

“The government is setting up a coal power plant and shipbuilding industry near the Sundarbans which will destroy the forest – a shield during cyclones and other storms. The government should immediately cancel the decision,” he said.

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Climate change threatens Bangladesh’s MDG achievements – experts

Mon, 22 Jul 2013 04:33 PM

Syful Islam

DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Two years before the 2015 deadline, Bangladesh has achieved most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations, but the impacts of climate change pose a threat to the country’s progress, experts say.

“The threat of climate change can diminish the hard-earned beneficial impacts of years of growth and development, not just for the people in impoverished settlements along coastal belts and river banks, but for the entire nation,” said Shamsul Alam, a member of Bangladesh’s Planning Commission.

Bangladesh has recorded impressive feats in lifting people out of poverty, ensuring more girls and boys attend school, and providing access to clean water, Alam said. Considerable progress has also been made in raising the number of children that survive beyond their fifth birthday, and the country has been recognised by the United Nations as on track to meet the goal of reducing child mortality by two thirds of its 1990 rate.

“There have been some improvements to address the country’s massive environmental challenges over the past decade as well,” Alam added.

But Ainun Nishat, an environmentalist and vice-chancellor of BRAC University in Dhaka, said the impacts of climate change were not considered when the MDG targets were set at the beginning of the century.

The issue came into focus after 2007 when a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a sea-level rise of 1 metre would inundate nearly one fifth of Bangladesh’s coastal area and flood plain.

“The impacts of climate change will definitely hamper steps for achieving the MDGs (and) especially pose a threat to food security,” he said.

Apart from the risk of flooding, Nishat said climate change is causing variable rainfall. From 2007 to 2012 there was hardly any rain in Bangladesh’s northern districts. The recent experience in the capital is different, however.

“This year a full day’s heavy downpour (occurred) in Dhaka, causing huge waterlogging,” Nishat said.

CITY SLUMS SWELL

Climate change is also a factor in internal and external migration, with a negative impact on food security, nutrition and children’s education, areas where the MDGs are meant to bring improvements. It is also implicated in the spread of health-related problems like dengue fever.

Meanwhile, the government is struggling to keep up with the infrastructure needs of expanding cities.

Arif Sheikh, a rickshaw puller who lives in Dhaka’s Korail slum, said poor people living in the shanties are deprived of many civic amenities. “Children here hardly go to school or get medical services, thus (they) sufferer from diseases.”

Sheikh, who came to Dhaka from Barisal district in southern Bangladesh after losing his land to riverbank erosion, said finding work has become extremely competitive as the number of poor people moving to the city increases.

“People from coastal districts are pouring into the capital … as they are losing lands and houses to the river,” he said.

Day labourer Rahim Mia, who lives in Dhaka’s Malibagh area, said migrating to the capital had not ensured even a modest living for him or his family.

“Every morning, several hundred people gather here to be hired by contractors. But not necessarily everyone gets a job since the scope of work is limited compared to the number of jobseekers,” said the 35-year-old father of two young daughters and a son.

“Riverbank erosion and salinity has driven us to the city, but the government (pays) no attention to us.”

ACTION NEEDED

Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a nongovernmental organisation working on sustainable development issues, agreed the effects of climate change have emerged as one of the main barriers to poverty reduction.

“Climate change is causing lower food production, and adding difficulties for ordinary people,” he said.

Rahman said there is no doubt that global warming will undermine some of the Millennium Development Goals.

“Extreme events like cyclone, storms, floods and droughts continue to pose a threat to (their achievement),” he said.

Adaptation by poor nations will not work unless industrialised countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, he argued. “If sea-level rise is too high, no infrastructural protection will save the low-lying countries,” he said.

BRAC University’s Nishat said Bangladesh’s leaders must act quickly to avert disaster.

“We have to take steps so that the impacts of climate change can’t cause a food crisis, destroy the ecosystem and hinder the development process,” he said.

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]

http://www.trust.org/item/20130722163326-vjgux/?source=hptop

Warming driving accelerating river erosion in Bangladesh

Thomson Reuters Foundation – Thu, 23 May 2013 11:00 AM

Author: Syful Islam

SIRAJGANJ, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Worsening erosion along the banks of the Jamuna River has dramatically increased the number of families losing their homes and land – but dredging could help ease the problem, experts say.

Erosion is a long-standing problem in Bangladesh, with much of the country made up river deltas deposited by the region’s many rivers. But more extreme weather and heavy runoff has led to growing deposits of soil in the Jamuna River, which is in turn driving worsening riverside erosion, residents and experts say.

This rainy season alone, hundreds of families in Sirajganj district have lost their homes or their farmland, they said.

Amir Hosen, 70, of East Bahuka village, said he had gradually lost all of his two acres of land to the river, and now has had to rent about a tenth of an acre of farmland to house and support his family, at a cost of $70 a year.

“I had to move three times with my belongings as the Jamuna River continued eroding. I was a land owner. Now I have become a refugee,” said Hosen, the father of three daughters and two sons who have had to leave the area to find jobs.

He said erosion of river-side land now happens throughout the year. “Earlier, we saw erosion in April- May season, but now it is eroding throughout the year,” he said.

Atiq Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview that due to formation of char – land that emerges from riverbeds as a result of accumulating deposits of sediment – rivers like the Jamuna now store lower volumes of water than in the past.

That leads to displacement of river water, with more of it pushed against the riverbank, leading to worsening erosion, he said.

“Getting no other option, water starts hitting the river banks as the flow increases during the rainy season, causing erosion and making people landless,” he said.

DREDGING AN ANSWER?

He believes that large-scale dredging could restore the depth of the riverbed and increase its ability to hold water, cutting the rate of erosion.

Dredging on the Indian side of cross-border rivers like the Jamuna, the Padma and the Brahmaputra means losses of land to erosion are much smaller there, he said.

“The rivers there (in India) are stable while here these are very much unstable,” he said.

But the soil makeup is also playing a role in Bangladesh’s more severe erosion, he said. Riverbank soils in India contain more rock, he said, and have more resistance to the erosive forces of water. Bangladesh’s riverbanks, however, have few rocks.

Some embankments in Bangladesh are strengthened with stones or concrete slabs, but not all have been properly maintained, he said. For such protections to be effective, “the maintenance costs have to be an integrated part of an embankment construction budget so that steps can be taken immediately when signs of possible erosion emerge.”

Jail Hossain, a member of Shuvogacha Union Parishad, a local government body, said the Jamuna’s erosion had eaten up three villages in 2007, forcing 2,000 inhabitants to move to Bahuka village.

In 2009 and 2010 they were again displaced by erosion and forced to move towards East Bahuka village. In 2011, the main Bahuka village was totally lost to the river and now East Bahuka village is also being eroded away.

Abdus Salam, headmaster of Chandnagar primary school, said the whole of Chandnagar village was eroded by the Jamuna River in just one year and the school had been forced to move a kilometer away to East Bahuka village, now itself under threat.

“This year the intensity of erosion is very high and I am in doubt whether any portion of this village will be left intact,” he said.

EMBANKMENT PROBLEMS

Aynal Mia, a farmer of the village, said the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) is focused on building new embankments but has not done enough to stop the continuing erosion.

“You see work on a new embankment going on, leaving a big part of the village for the river to eat up, instead of (workers) taking measures to protect the existing embankment,” he said.

Anisur Rahman, a sub-divisional engineer of the water development board, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that erosion has washed away three entire embankments in the sub-district since 1971, when Bangladesh gained its independence.

He said due to a lack of maintenance funds the board could not protect existing embankments with stones, sand bags, and concrete slabs. He agreed that river dredging was needed.

“Necessary dredging in the river can help storage more water by the river and protect the embankment from erosion,” he said. He noted that “erosion nowadays is much faster” than in the past.

Rahman, who was born and brought up in this area, said the changing river depth was evident from the types of ships that could navigate it.

“During our childhood we saw big ships were plying through this river. The depth of the river was nearly 100 feet then. Now it is reduced to 25 to 30 feet,” he said.

Fazlul Huq, a sub-assistant engineer of the water development board, said his agency needs Tk 1.5 billion ($1.5 million) to carry out a proper maintenance work to protect the local river embankment.

“But we don’t have such a budgetary allocation. So, we are now building an alternative mud wall so that water can’t enter the remaining part of the village this season,” he said, admitting such work was a short-term measure.

BCAS’s Rahman said the worsening erosion was in part of a result of climate shifts which have led to more rapid melting of ice in the Himalayas. The increased runoff carries additional sediment into the beds of rivers such as the Jamuna, leading to increased riverbank erosion.

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Bangladesh’s severe weather hotline faces test as tropical storm approaches

Mon, 13 May 2013 04:36 PM

Author: Syful Islam

DHAKA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A new telephone hotline in Bangladesh that gives advance warning of bad weather could be put to the test in coming days as a tropical storm threatens to reach hurricane strength over the country.

The hotline, launched in March, enables Bangladeshis to get recorded weather bulletins and flood forecasts 24 hours a day from the Bangladesh Meteorological Department by dialing a dedicated number – 10941 – on their mobile phones.

Officials will be hoping the phone line will help steer people away from danger as Tropical Storm Mahasen gathers pace as it heads north across the Bay of Bengal towards Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal region. It is expected to hit in the next 72 hours.

“The newly introduced service will help people stay updated about weather and flood forecasts and make preparations if disaster approaches,” Abdul Wazed, director general of the Department of Disaster Management, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview before the news broke of the impending storm.

Wazed said his agency hoped the phone warnings would give people time to prepare for extreme weather and reduce their exposure to risk, particularly as “the number of disastrous events continues to increase.”

The service, which is aimed primarily at the country’s vulnerable coastal population, is being implemented under the country’s Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP), a project funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The disaster management programme aims to reduce Bangladesh’s vulnerability to hazards and extreme events, including those linked to climate change, and to make sure 13 key ministries and agencies adopt risk reduction strategies.

Calls to the new hotline cost 2 Taka (just over one cent) per minute but Wazed said his department is trying to reduce the cost to ensure the service is used by Bangladesh’s poorest people.

“We are trying to reduce the cost to 1 Taka per minute or to make the calls free of charge so that more people can hear the alerts and avoid danger,” he said.

His agency also plans to air television and radio advertisements about the service to increase uptake and has already put up 110,000 posters around the country.

WARNINGS FOR FISHERMEN

Last year, Bangladesh launched a pilot project to warn ocean-going fishermen about extreme weather using an electronic device in their boats. Fifty boats were given the device, which could also be used to track them.

In the second phase of the project, which will start soon, an additional 300 boats will be given the device, using funding from the UK-based Humanitarian Innovation Fund.

Bangladesh and supporting NGOs eventually hope to make such devices mandatory for all ocean-going boats.

Tapash Ranjan Chakroborty, an Oxfam campaign officer in Dhaka, said there are some 12,000 fishing boats with sea-going capacity in Bangladesh. If they are within 90 kilometres of the shore, the device allows them to hear warnings and start for home, hopefully avoiding extreme weather.

A study carried out by the Bangladesh-based Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) found that the intensity and frequency of storms in Bangladesh has tripled in the last 30 years.

During the 2007-2010 period, Bangladesh had 10 to 14 storms severe enough for a signal number 3 warning each year. Three decades ago, just four or five such warnings were issued each year.

Rafiqul Islam, a fisherman in Satkhira district, said most fishermen today depend on the radio to get weather bulletins. The state run radio service reaches up to 50 kilometres offshore.

“We also carry cell phones and friends and relatives inform us about the weather. With the new service, we will be able to hear weather bulletins instantly and start returning if disaster approaches,” he said.

With cell phones now almost ubiquitous in Bangladesh, phone-based early warning systems will be a big help, said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.

But he said he hoped the service would be expanded to provide much more localised and specific warnings.

“I think the time has come to provide area-specific weather alerts instead of general ones. The BMD (the meteorological department) couldn’t give any warning about the formation of a tornado that lashed Brahmanbaria district recently, killing many and destroying several villages,” he noted.

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Safe drinking water disappearing fast in Bangladesh – study

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation – Thu, 2 May 2013 09:45 AM

Author: Syful Islam

DHAKA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The availability of safe drinking water, particularly in Bangladesh’s “hard-to-reach areas,” is expected to worsen as the country continues to suffer the effects of climate change, experts say.

According to a study by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, some 28 million Bangladeshis, or just over 20 percent of the total population, are living in harsh conditions in the so-called “hard-to-reach areas” that make up a quarter of the country’s land area. The study found that char — land that emerges from riverbeds as a result of the deposit of sediments — is among the most inaccessible, along with hilly areas, coastal regions and haors, bowl-shaped wetlands areas in northeastern Bangladesh.

“People living in hard-to-reach areas are often vulnerable to natural calamities like flooding, riverbank erosion and siltation,” said Rokeya Ahmed, a water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank. “As a result of climate change, salinity in Bangladesh’s coastal areas has increased (a great deal), causing a lack of sweet water. Women of coastal and haor areas need to go miles and miles to collect a pitcher of safe drinking water.”

Worsening weather extremes, that bring floods, storm surges and cyclones, are contributing to increases in water salinity and other problems accessing clean water, the report said. Shahdat Hossain, a grocer in Matlab district, a hard-to-reach area some 50 kilometres from Dhaka, the country’s capital, said his town is now subject to regular river erosion and flooding.

“River bank erosion has turned many people of this area into refugees,” he says. “Since this area is very close to the Bay of Bengal, the amount of arsenic in the groundwater is also very high. We need to dig much deeper to get arsenic-free water.”

Experts fear that the approaching summer could intensify the struggle to find potable water. Shareful Hassan, a consultant on geographic information systems and a researcher on the World Bank study, says surface water sources have already dried up in many parts of the country, which will have a heavy impact on drinking water access, sanitation and ecosystems.

“In the drought-prone Barind Tract area, in north Bangladesh, you have to dig more than 350 metres to get safe drinking water,” he said, adding that the situation is expected to worsen since unusually low rainfall in the area means underground aquifers are not being replenished.

DISAPPEARING GROUNDWATER

Even in Dhaka, people have been reporting dwindling water supplies. Eftekharul Alam, an engineer for the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation, said groundwater levels in the city are falling drastically as a result of excessive extraction to meet the growing megacity’s needs.

Dhaka’s underground aquifers are usually recharged with water that percolates underground in nearby districts, but the levels of underground fresh water in those districts have also dropped, allowing seawater to start seeping into the capital’s aquifers. If this continues, experts say, Dhaka’s drinking water could become increasingly undrinkable.

According to Ainun Nishat, a climate change expert and vice chancellor of BRAC University in Dhaka, over the last five years rainfall across Bangladesh has dropped by 50 percent and become increasingly unpredictable. That has led to a variety of problems, including growing salinity in groundwater.

“Salinity in the water of coastal areas has now reached over 20 parts per thousand, but the human body can only tolerate 5 parts per thousand,” he said.

Nishat says the best option for drought- and saline-prone areas is to preserve rainwater in artificial ponds and distribute it to communities. And he agrees with other experts that the government must turn to technology to bring drinking water to those who need it.

Filtration and desalination plants are expensive, but experts say they offer the only chance to avert a looming crisis. Nishat suggests installing sand filter systems, in which hand pumps are used to suck water from artificial ponds through a filter that makes the water potable.

For those living in hard-to-reach areas, the search for a solution has become a matter of urgency.

“We now frequently face cyclones and flash floods which cause the swamping of croplands by saltwater and put us in danger,” said Shafiqul Islam, a farmer in Barisal, a southern Bangladesh district that the World Bank study categorised as an “extremely” hard-to-reach area. “Our lives are under severe threat. Getting safe drinking water has become a big challenge.”

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper, published in Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]