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Aggressive fossil fuel expansion puts Bangladesh on the edge

After causing many to lose their livelihoods, the 1,320 MW fossil-fuel based Rampal power plant in Khulna, with its deafening sound, billowing clouds of smoke, and ground-shaking vibrations, now looms large as an imminent eviction threat in the mind of hundreds of those living in the vicinity of the power plant.

Emran Hossain

Located just 14 kilometers from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem sustaining the delta of the Padma, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, which constitute Bangladesh, the Rampal power plant, inaugurated at the end of last year, is already labeled as a project with public and environmental health and climatic consequences.

Less than a month into its operation, before the dollar crisis caused its sudden closure in mid-January, the Rampal power plant already appeared as an existential threat to many living in a radius of 20 kilometers or even more.

‘The power plant scared people producing ground-shaking vibrations, unbearable sounds and causing cracks in the earthen walls of many houses,’ said Shaharun Nesa, a resident of Hogoldanga, a neighborhood about 20 km from the power plant.

‘It was a horrible experience. I thought my eardrum was going to explode,’ she said. Shaharun has acquaintances living in the distance of a minute’s walk from the power plant that got the first of its two units into commercial operation in December last year.

‘We now know we cannot live here long,’ said Shaharun, interviewed over the phone on February 13, just days before the power plant resumed its operation again.

The Rampal power station sits on nearly 2,000 acres, including agricultural land, representing one of the fossil fuel power hotspots – Khulna coal hub worth about 2,000 MW – built since the incumbent Bangladesh government assumed power in 2009.

Noor Alam, a Mongla-based journalist, reported seeing excavators being used to unloading coal-laden cargo vessels anchored in dozens at the jetty built for receiving coal for the Rampal power plant.

Loads of coal fell into the river during the unloading. The power plant also gave rise to a spectacle with its billowing clouds of black smoke wafting through the sky as if an extra layer of cloud had wrapped the lower sky.

In the adjacent Barishal division, just 150 kilometers from the Khulna division, another fossil fuel based power capacity of over 4,000 MW is being built with more than 1,600 MW already in operation. Barishal is currently home to Bangladesh’s largest coal-based power plant, the 1,320 MW Payra power plant, which is fully operational since December 2020.

Three years before in 2017 government fisheries had warned that the Payra power plant was a threat to at least two Ilish sanctuaries and a migration route of Ilish.

‘The atmosphere has grown evidently hotter around the plant,’ said Ibrahim Shikder, a villager of Dhankhali, Kolapara, who lives within a walking distance of five minutes from the Payra power plant. ‘Trees are turning blackish and bearing far fewer fruits than they used to be,’ he said.

Locals turned hostile to each other, getting into an altercation and even fights over meaningless trivia, Ibrahim reported, after losing their livelihoods and the lap of nature that sustained them for generations in the coastal area. Like Khulna and Barishal, Bangladesh is developing power hubs in Chattogram, Narayanganj, Meghnaghat, Sylhet, and Ashuganj.

The incumbent government of Bangladesh increased the country’s installed power generation capacity by almost five times since 2009, mostly based on imported fossil fuel, ignoring its environmental, health and climatic consequences.

The country’s first coal power plant, the 400MW Barapukuriya power station, came into operation in 2006 and is known to have caused widespread environmental pollution.

Studies confirmed significant contamination of well and irrigation water caused by Barapukuriya’s ash pond with lead levels measuring 35-395 times higher than the WHO drinking water level standards while chromium levels were measured to be 8,025-18,675 times higher.

Incidents of the ash pond overflowing onto cropland, contaminating food production areas, were also reported at the Barapukuriya power plant.

The actual impact of fossil fuel on health, environment and climate with regard to Bangladesh is difficult to get, particularly with the country’s Department of Environment mired in corruption and power plants are often built without any or dubious environmental impact assessments.

There are however some independent studies shedding light on the potentially harmful consequences of fossil fuel burning, particularly on health, environment and climate of densely-populated Bangladesh.

A joint report by four NGOs, including the Australia-based Market Forces, revealed in May last year that the 20 GW of fossil fuel-based power capacity being built in Chattogram would release 1.38 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more than 5 times of Bangladesh’s annual emission, throughout the plants’ operational lifetime.

The release of carbon dioxide is like casting a net capturing heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the worst forms of carbon and burning fossil fuels such as gas, oil or coal is the principal way of releasing the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.

Human activities emitting carbon is called anthropogenic carbon emission, which is blamed for causing irrevocable climate change and sea level rise.

Fossil fuels contain carbon that plants absorbed from the atmosphere over millions of years and human activities like burning them are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in a matter of centuries.

The Global Carbon Budget 2021 revealed that the release of carbon from burning fossil fuels rose from an average of 3 billion tons, equivalent to 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a year in the 1960s to 9.5 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide, per year in the 2010s.

Anthropogenic carbon emission, with fossil fuel burning on top of deforestation, has overwhelmed nature’s capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere, leading to the heat-trapping gas’s rapid accumulation and thus driving the global warming.

The NASA estimated that since the 18th century – the beginning of the industrial times – anthropogenic causes have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide by 50 per cent, implying the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere is now 150% of its value in 1750.

Since 2009, the year the incumbent government assumed power with its aggressive fossil fuel expansion policy, Bangladesh’s carbon emission nearly doubled to over 93 million tones from power generation, the third highest carbon emission growth recorded by South Asian countries over the same period, after India and Pakistan, according to Our World in Data.

Our World in Data colored Bangladesh red with regard to countries importing carbon emissions thanks to the country’s overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel import.

Our World in Data showed, 81 per cent growth in carbon emission was observed from burning oil in 2021 compared to 2009 rate. Similarly, a 66 per cent increase in carbon emission was observed from burning gas over the same time frame. Burning coal increased the carbon emission by 400 per cent in 2021, compared with its 2009 rate.

In 2021, a World Bank report said that climate-driven changes will make 19.9 million Bangladeshis to migrate internally by 2050. The climate driven-changes, the report said, are water scarcity, reduced crop productivity, sea level rise and storm surge, heat stress, extreme events and land loss.

About five months before the WB report was released, in just three hours hot wind left vast rice fields in 10 northern and western districts burned and destroyed.

Stories told in sprawling city slums by their dwellers across Bangladesh largely concern flood, erosion, growing salinity, and storm surges.

In addition to the long-term climatic impacts mentioned above, fossil fuel burning will also cause immediate pollution-related deaths, studies revealed.

A report released in May 2020 by the Finnish research organization Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) estimated that the Payra power cluster, which was initially comprised of seven power plants three of which were later canceled, could cause between 18,000 and 35,000 pollution-related deaths over 30 years of the plant’s lifetime.

The other potential health impacts of the Payra power cluster included thousands of emergency hospital visits by patients with asthma, diabetes, stroke, disability, and other respiratory illnesses every year.

The Payra power cluster was also estimated to generate enough PM 2.5 pollutants to cover a large area including Dhaka and the Sundarbans World Heritage site. Nitrogen Dioxide or NO2 pollution was estimated to be dispersed over a wider area than PM 2.5, reaching the border with India.

The Payra power cluster would emit approximately 600-800 kg of mercury and 6,000 tonnes of fly ash per year into the air, the report said, with a third of the mercury emitted, up to 290 kg a year, getting deposited into land and freshwater ecosystems.

Mercury deposition rates as low as 125mg/ha/year can lead to the accumulation of unsafe levels of mercury in fish, the report added.

The CREA released a second study report on the fossil fuel based power projects in the Chattogram region worth almost 10,000 MW three months later in September 2020. Pollutants released by the power plants could cause 650 deaths a year, the report said.

These projects would emit an estimated 1600 kg of mercury per year into the air, of which 40% would be deposited into land and freshwater ecosystems in Bangladesh, affecting cropland and fisheries in an area inhabited by 7.4 million people, according to the second CREA report.

The combined plumes of toxic air emissions from both the Payra and Chattogram power plants overlap for 70 kilometers – from the Feni River all the way down the Bangladesh coastline through Chattogram to just offshore of Moheshkhali island, the report said.

Some of the power plants in the Chattogram region were canceled but others are being implemented with the government often defending fossil fuel project as clean citing technological innovations.

In November 2019, the Netherlands-based environmental organisation Greenpeace released a report calling the idea of checking pollution emissions from fossil-fuel based power plants by technological intervention a myth.

‘Unfortunately, Bangladesh lacks environmental regulation for power plants and relaxed its existing environmental law allowing far higher pollution than deemed tolerable by other countries and WHO,’ said Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, who is also the joint secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.

‘In the climate change narrative Bangladesh cannot play the victim card long because of its rapidly increasing fossil fuel burning,’ he added.

Natural gas accounts for 49 per cent of Bangladesh’s current installed capacity of 23,482MW, excluding the captive power capacity of 2,800 MW. Coal, on the other hand, holds 11 per cent of the current generation capacity, followed by furnace oil accounting for 27 per cent of the installed capacity, diesel six per cent, import of fossil fuel generated power from India five per cent, and renewable energy for the rest two per cent.

Power plants are also believed to be contributing to Bangladesh’s growing water stress by using water arbitrarily and freely from both surface and ground sources. All these environmental consequences come on top of the huge financial burden created by Bangladesh’s import-based massive power generation capacity.

The ongoing economic and dollar crises are believed to have been largely created by flawed power and energy policy. And the climate-vulnerable coastal community is bearing the brunt.

Like many others, Mohammad Hemayet Sheikh, a resident of Boddashkathi char of Rampal, lost his fish enclosure and the privilege of living with his family because of the Rampal power station. Hemayet became a construction worker and was staying in Jhalokathi for a wage of Tk 400 a day.

‘I cannot find words to express my condition,’ said Hemayet as tears welled up in his eyes. ‘Home cannot be traded with anything, can it?’ he asked, adding, ‘Yet, I lost my home, job, and my root. All at once in exchange for nothing. I am already a dead man.’

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