December 13, 2016 Read More →

On the Blogs: Fierce Pushback in Bangladesh on Questionable Coal Project

Keith Schneider for Circle of Blue:

In 2010, when Bangladesh drew up its Power Sector Master Plan to develop thousands of new megawatts of coal-fired electricity, the government also bought 742 hectares (1,834 acres) of bottomland along the Passur River. At the time, the aggressive master plan and the flood-prone parcel, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Dhaka, the capital, served what authorities considered sensible steps to achieve the same national goal – more power for industry and homes.

The master plan, mindful of Bangladesh’s strong textile-based export revenue, called for 30,000 megawatts of new generating capacity by 2030.

When the plan was written, some 70 million of Bangladesh’s 160 million residents had no access to electricity.

Two-thirds would be fueled by coal. The low-lying ground along the Passur, the intended site for a 1,320-megawatt coal-fired power plant near the town of Rampal, would help achieve that goal.

When the plan was written, some 70 million of Bangladesh’s 160 million residents had no access to electricity. The country’s GDP growth, more than 6 percent annually, was held back by electricity shortages. Bangladesh power stations, most fueled by natural gas, totaled roughly 10,000 megawatts of generating capacity in 2010, about the same amount of power delivered by Connecticut’s utility sector.

Six years, though, turned out to be a treacherous and disruptive period of intense transition, not only in Bangladesh, but in any country that was intent on pursuing a national electrical development plan that relied on coal. The dramatic transformation that government authorities anticipated with the 20th century-style, coal-centered energy plan crashed into a wall of competing ecological and social impediments in the more crowded, resource-scarce, culturally activated 21st century.

Public resistance to water pollution and disruption in water supplies form a sizable portion of the case that citizens make against coal projects in Bangladesh. The Rampal power plant, the development most besieged by protest, is condemned in and outside Bangladesh as a source of water and air pollution that will contaminate the Passur River and damage the internationally renowned Sundarbans. The coastal mangrove forest and wetland, so wild that it is habitat for 400 Bengal tigers, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997 by the United Nations.

Work on Rampal and Bangladesh’s other new coal-fired plants has slowed dramatically and engulfed the country’s coal-centered energy strategy in waves of domestic opposition and international criticism. In April, four anti-coal campaigners were killed by police, and nearly 100 people and 11 police officers were injured during a ferocious protest against two Chinese-financed coal-fired plants in Gandamara, near Chittagong, the country’s second largest city.

Of the 19 coal-fired stations planned by Bangladesh, Rampal is the only project that has made any visible progress. Seven projects have been shelved, according to SourceWatch.org, a research group that tracks the industry globally. One of the projects, the 660-megawatt Orion coal-fired plant, was scheduled to be built near the Rampal project. Korean and Chinese financiers pulled out of two other large coal-fired projects. Japan pulled out last summer of a fourth coal-fired power plant.

Work on the Rampal project also has attracted international criticism. In September 2016, in an unusually strident report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) condemned Bangladesh for siting the Rampal plant just upstream of the Sundarbans, and called for building the project in a safer place. Last spring thousands of Bangladesh anti-coal activists participated in a week-long, 400-kilometer (250 miles) protest march from Dhaka to Rampal, the latest of several marches since 2013. The Rampal project, financed by the India Export-Import Bank, has stirred clashes between opposition political parties and the governments of both Bangladesh and neighboring India.

The Rampal plant’s delays and rising construction costs are a factor in elevated electricity prices that will be uncompetitive in Bangladesh, according to a July study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an international research organization. And last year, South Asians for Human Rights, a watchdog group based in Sri Lanka, issued a fact-finding report that underscored weaknesses in the plant’s design, uncertainty about environmental compliance, improper land use, and trampled human rights.

“If the protests continue and intensify enough to halt the continuation of the Rampal project there is the risk to the financiers of the project being discontinued,” said Rohini Kamal, a research fellow at the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University, in an email message to Circle of Blue. “Furthermore with increased global awareness around potential negative impacts, there could be reputational risk to the financiers as well. The negative impacts arise from 1) social concerns such as relocation of local populations and risk to the water bodies that people’s livelihoods depend on, and 2) from carbon emission emissions associated with coal plants and the potential loss of a valuable carbon sink, the Sundarbans.”

Full item: Protests Over Water Safety, Bank Financing Rock Bangladesh Coal Plants

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