When cyclone Bulbul hit Bangladesh on November 10, 2019, the Sundarbans, as always, protected coastal and non-coastal areas from excessive damage. The Sundarbans, a forest that has the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide many times more than other land-based forests, is essential for the ecology and safety of the southern part of Bangladesh. In the face of global warming and rising sea level, this mangrove forest works as a shield between natural hazards and the mainland.
According to recent research carried out jointly by 350, a research organisation based in the US, and Market Forces, an Australia-based research organisation, "cyclone intensity will increase by 130 per cent by 2050 if global temperature rises by 2.4C this century with reference to Bangladesh occupying the top most position on the UNDP list of countries vulnerable to tropical cyclones."
Every cyclone heading to Bangladesh hits the Sundarbans first. In a similar way, Cyclone Bulbul became weaker thanks to the Sundarbans. Cyclone Sidr on November 15, 2007, and the Cyclone Aila on 25 May, 2009, were more powerful than Bulbul but slowed down against the defences of the Sundarbans.
Sadly, we are oblivious to the benefits of this mangrove forest. As a result, we continue to harm it in many ways, including cutting down its trees illegally, poaching its wildlife, endangering its biodiversity, building mills and factories near it and contaminating its air.
A UNESCO report revealed that sea level has risen by 45 cm because of man-made causes. The report also pointed out that 75 per cent of this forest could disappear in the twenty-first century because of rising of sea level and other human created causes.
The Sundarbans, a world heritage site, faces the threat of severe damage because of the construction of coal-based power plants in Rampal, Taltali and Kalapara. Since these power plants do not use the latest technology in curbing pollution and in waste management, our mangrove forest may bear the brunt of pollution and mismanagement of waste.
It is a scientific fact that coal-based power plants pollute the environment. Yet coal is largely used worldwide to produce electricity. Environmentalists in Bangladesh have been campaigning since the outset against the setting-up of the coal-based Rampal power plant because it will pollute and may potentially destroy the environment surrounding the Sundarbans, and threaten the biodiversity of the forest in the long run.
The Rampal power plant is being set-up close to the Sundarbans. As a result, there are fears that pollutants originating from this power plant will have a dire effect on the forest. Environmentalists say that pollution caused by burning coal will spread to the soil, the air, and will even affect the water of the Pasur River which flows through the Sundarbans, and that may potentially affect the Sundarbans.
The government defends the Rampal power plant project by saying that 'supercritical technology' will be used to prevent toxic gases and ash from being released into the atmosphere.
Citing a report from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) published in 2013, the government claims that the amount of sulphur dioxide in the air in general is 8 micrograms per cubic meter. Due to coal burning in Rampal, the sulphur dioxide will rise to 53 micrograms per cubic meter in the November-February period. The government argues that 53 micrograms per cubic meter of sulphur dioxide is an acceptable level in residential and rural areas.
This is exactly the point on which environmentalists have been opposing the government's claims. The Sundarbans is not a residential or rural area. It is in fact an environmentally sensitive area full of natural biodiversity. According to Dr Badrul Imam, professor of Geology at the University of Dhaka, it is unacceptable to think that the Sundarbans, which is a very sensitive area, can be exposed to 53 micrograms per cubic metre of sulphur dioxide which is considered to be acceptable in residential areas.
Professor Imam, as per his article published on local media, believes that the management of large-scale reduction of contaminants by applying 'supercritical technology' can benefit a less sensitive area; but for an environmentally sensitive place like the Sundarbans, it is not possible.
A New York Times report focused on the similar issue of a coal-based power plant in New Jersey. The power plant used high end technology, Scrubbers, to trap the poisonous gas and ash. But the apparent failure of this effort soon came to light when the chemicals used in the technology had to be dumped in the adjacent river.
In case of the Rampal coal-based power plant, water used from the Posur River will eventually be dumped back into the river after use at 5150 cubic meters per hour. It will also add polluted water coming out of the scrubber used to capture contaminated ash and air. This contaminated water will eventually flow directly into the river and enter the Sundarbans.
Despite all the threats that our Sundarbans has been exposed to, many in Bangladesh seem to continue believing that such a large forest cannot be destroyed. These people are apparently living in a fool's paradise. Scientists say that the Sundarbans may soon disappear because of the rate at which infrastructure is being developed in nearby areas.
The temperature is rising day by day, and the melting of polar ice-caps is raising the sea level. The level of harmful particles in the atmosphere is also on the rise. Every day we are constantly polluting the environment and air. In the face of such harsh realities, large forests like the Amazon, Congo and the Sundarbans play a major role in balancing the effects of climate change. So it is time we become sincere in our efforts to save the Sundarbans.