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The UNESCO World Heritage Committee at its annual meeting in Bonn has yet again criticised the Bangladeshi government for failing to evaluate the impacts of the proposed Rampal coal plant on the Sundarbans World Heritage Site. In a blow to prospects for the coal plant, the Committee requested the Bangladeshi government invite a monitoring mission to the site, the first step towards placing the property on the World Heritage in Danger list.
The World Heritage Committee decision is a further setback to the Rampal project promoters, a consortium comprising India's National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh's Power Development Board, as they seek project finance of over $1 billion from international lenders. NTPC has already this year suffered a $56 million divestment from Norway's Global Pension Fund specifically on account of the risks of "severe environmental damage" that the Rampal project could inflict on the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world and forms a natural fence protecting the coastal belt areas of Bangladesh. It is estimated that over one million people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihood, many of whom work seasonally as fishermen. The coal-based thermal power plant at Rampal will be located just 14 kilometres upstream of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest. The Bangladeshi government has justified the location of the project on the grounds that it is at a ‘safe' distance from the mangrove forest.
"This decision by the World Heritage Committee demonstrates how deeply concerned the Committee is about the potential impacts of the Rampal coal plant on the Sundarbans World Heritage Site," said Yann Louvel of BankTrack. "It should be an alarm call for international banks that may be considering financing the coal plant. The Rampal coal plant has potential to cause serious damage to the world's largest mangrove forest and one of the last remaining habitats for the Bengal tiger."
Last year the World Heritage Committee expressed concern about the proposed construction of the Rampal plant at Khulna, in particular citing the lack of an assessment of the impacts of the proposed coal plant on the World Heritage Site and requesting the Bangladesh government to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) "to ensure that cumulative impacts of developments in Sundarbans are adequately assessed".
While the Bangladesh government submitted a report in February this year to the committee as requested, this year's UNESCO World Heritage Committee decision notes the ongoing lack of an SEA or other detailed studies on the likely impacts of the Rampal plant and other industrial activities on the World Heritage property. The Committee urges the government "to ensure activities are not conducted before the revised EIA is submitted to the World Heritage Centre and reviewed by IUCN."
The decision further requests the Bangladesh government to invite a monitoring mission to the Sundarbans in order "to review the state of conservation of the property, and the potential impacts of the thermal power plant development and dredging of Pashur River". Such a monitoring mission is the first step towards placing a property on the World Heritage in Danger list.
Yann Louvel continued: "The committee's view is a strong reminder to banks that there are huge, irreversible social and environmental risks involved in the Rampal project and that, worryingly, the project promoters and the Bangladesh and Indian governments are taking an overly relaxed approach to safeguarding the Sundarbans.
"With the project now desperate for financing, and efforts being ramped up to secure international lenders in the coming weeks, we're calling on other banks to follow the example recently set by three top French banks and declare that they're steering clear of Sundarbans devastation."
In May, France's three largest banks, BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole and Société Génerale, disclosed that they will not finance the Rampal project due to incompatibility with their policies and "the risks associated with the project". A recently published BankTrack study has revealed that the potential environmental damage posed by the Rampal project means that it would breach many provisions of the Equator Principles, a set of social and environmental guidelines for project finance followed by 80 banks around the world.
Notes for editors:
1. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee draft decision on the Sundarbans, to be adopted at the end of this week's meeting in Bonn, is available here.
2. The 2014 UNESCO World Heritage Committee decision on Sundarbans is available here.
3. Guardian, French banks say no to Bangladesh coal plant, June 20145
4. BankTrack: Equator Principles Analysis of the Rampal Coal-fired Power Plant Project, Bangladesh, June 2015