The planet’s largest mangrove forest could be facing serious trouble in the form of two new coal-fired power plants, environmentalists say — and they’re urging the United Nations to draw greater attention to the issue.

A handful of environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and, have cumulatively collected 50,000 signatures on a petition just submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asking that the Sundarbans — a region of Bangladesh including a designated World Heritage Site — be placed on the official List of World Heritage in Danger. Meanwhile, activists continue to lobby against the construction of the power plants.  

The petition was submitted ahead of this year’s meeting of the World Heritage Committee, which convened in Istanbul last week. Meanwhile, progress on the Rampal power plant — the proposed project garnering the greatest amount of concern in Bangladesh — continues to move forward. Last week, local media reported that an official agreement had been signed awarding India’s state-run Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. an engineering and construction deal on the Rampal project, paving the way for its continued development.

The importance of the Sundarbans

The Sundarbans include a region spanning thousands of square miles of land and water in India and Bangladesh and including what may be the largest mangrove forest in the world. The area is known for the rich habitat it provides for hundreds of birds and numerous endangered or threatened species, including the Bengal tiger and the Indian python.  

Several locations in the Sundarbans are listed as World Heritage Sites — United Nations-designated areas identified for their cultural or natural significance. These include the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh, which spans the drainage basins of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers and is intersected by a complex network of other rivers and waterways.

The Sundarbans mangrove forest was named a World Heritage Site in 1997, and its UNESCO description notes that the area “supports exceptional biodiversity in its terrestrial, aquatic and marine habitats.” Additionally, the area is critically important for the livelihoods people living in and around the site, protecting their communities from storm and tidal surges, and supporting fishing and farming. 

Environmental groups in Bangladesh and around the world are worried that the area and its inhabitants may be in jeopardy. Two coal-fired power plants have been proposed, both within a few miles of the Sundarbans, and activists are concerned that the power plants’ presence could alter the critical water balance in the region, pollute the surrounding water and air, and increase the risk of oil and coal spills, all of which they say could seriously damage the mangrove forest and threaten the well-being of the people and animals who call it home.

The most recently proposed project is the Orion power plant, a 630-megawatt plant being planned by the Orion Group. But the project receiving the most attention is the proposed Rampal power plant, which involves a partnership between India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corp. and the Bangladesh Power Development Board. The joint venture, which was established in 2012, is known as the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Co. Ltd., or BIFPCL. The plan for the Rampal power plant is an installed capacity of 1,320 megawatts.

Currently, Bangladesh has an installed power-generation capacity of about 12,000 megawatts. But the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) has estimated that demand will nearly triple by the year 2030 and is working to increase the country’s installed capacity accordingly. About 15,000 megawatts of the demand are expected to be supplied by coal-fired plants.  

Furthermore, the World Bank estimates that about 60 percent of the population of Bangladesh currently has access to electricity, so increased access has become a priority for the government. Both the current administration of Bangladesh and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi have expressed support for the Rampal project.

The controversy  

Protests against the Rampal project began several years ago among local inhabitants threatened with displacement by the project, said Renuka Saroha, a consultant with

“Initially, it was a movement by people living in that area who just wanted to protect their land,” she said. “These were poor farmers who did not have a lot of idea about what a power plant could do to the entire ecosystem.”  

Eventually, though, she said, the word began to spread among local nongovernmental organizations and attracted the attention of environmental groups elsewhere. Opposition has continued to ramp up recently. In March, hundreds of activists completed a four-day march from Dhaka into southwest Bangladesh to protest the Rampal plant’s construction.  

According to Saroha, the biggest concern among activists revolves around the plant’s effects on local water supplies. According to the proposal, the completed plant would draw its water from the nearby Passur River, later discharging treated waste water back into the river. Environmentalists worry about pollutants being introduced into the water supply to the detriment of the mangroves, the marine animals living there and nearby human communities who rely on the water for fishing and agriculture.

Activists are also concerned that a source of coal for the plant has not yet been identified, although suggestions have included importing coal from Australia or shipping it in from India. It’s an issue some think was not adequately addressed in the project’s environmental impact assessment, Saroha said.

“If you don’t know the source of coal, and if you don’t have any agreement for the coal supply, how can you have an impact assessment?” she said. “Because the content of sulfur [in the coal] is very important when you’re assessing the impact.” Additionally, environmentalists worry about the possibility of spills as the coal is being transported through the region’s waterways to the plant’s construction site. The region already experienced one such disaster two years ago, when an oil tanker collided with another vessel in the Shela River, spilling tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the water and threatening habitat for the rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins and other wildlife in the area.

And in a broader sense, environmentalists also worry that the completed power plant, and its steady electricity supply, will attract other forms of industry to the area that could prove harmful to the ecosystem.

“It is inevitable this entire area will become an industrial hub,” Saroha said. “The cumulative damage to the entire ecosystem is going to be irreversible.”

Damage to the ecosystem could have consequences for the global climate. Research suggests that mangrove forests serve as highly effective carbon sinks. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, mangrove forests and coastal wetlands may be able to store up to five times more carbon than the same size tropical forest. Damaging these ecosystems can both harm their ability to continue storing carbon, as well as release carbon that’s already sequestered.

Adding to this would be the carbon emissions produced by the coal plants themselves. According to the environmental impact assessment, the plant would require almost 13,000 tons of coal per day and would release an estimated 7.9 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Repeated attempts to contact representatives of the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Co. Ltd. for a response were unsuccessful. However, the company has issued several statements in the past, according to local media. In an October statement, BIFPCL reportedly asserted that “this power plant would be established by following all rules, regulations and standards of international organization as well as the Department of Environment of Bangladesh. All, including human beings, the Sundarbans and its bio-diversities, Pashur River, birds and fishes are totally safe from this power plant.”

In response to the specific concerns of environmentalists about pollution or coal spills, the statement added:  “Modern ultra-Super Thermal Technology would be used in the plant, which would prevent emission of harmful dark smoke and ash. While transporting to the plant the coal would be covered. So water or air will not be polluted. The water will be processed through improved technology. No polluted or hot water will be discharged to the river.”

Despite the protests, whether it’s possible for environmentalists to stop the construction of the Rampal power plant remains unclear. The goal of the recent petition to UNESCO is to have the site added to the official list of World Heritage in Danger, which can aid in calling international attention to the threats they face and motivate governments to better assess the consequences.

According to UNESCO, “inscription of a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger requires the World Heritage Committee to develop and adopt, in consultation with the State Party concerned, a programme for corrective measures, and subsequently to monitor the situation of the site. All efforts must be made to restore the site’s values in order to enable its removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger as soon as possible.”  

If the Sundarbans were to make it onto the list — which remains up to the discretion of the World Heritage Committee — Saroha notes that outcomes could range from more stringent eco-friendly technological requirements for the completed plant to the outright cancellation of the project.