Connecting the dots

by Seema Amin | Published: 00:05, Jul 22,2018


A file photo shows the construction site of Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bagerhat. — New Age

‘This is what local climate change resistance looks like.’
— March 11, 2018, Burnaby

LOCAL climate change resistance has been one of the more powerful concepts framing the Kinder Morgan/Trans-Mountain Pipeline protests, which continue to interrogate the self-professed ecological and cultural/democratic values enshrined in the Canadian constitution and the identity of the province of British Columbia. It immediately locates the resistance beyond illusionary binaries, a ‘green’ protectionism versus the status quo, a ‘grey’ economy, with its promised ‘gold’, and situates it in a real space, the global coordinates of climate change/environmental thresholds and the (local) grid of intersecting rights and values, transcending the dubiously discrete spheres of ‘national wealth’ and ‘environmental health,’ while bringing to the fore issues of social justice ie hypocrisy of entitled citizens over dispossessed ones.
It also interrogates the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ tokenism of a green economy model that will not address fundamental change, paying hollow lip service to ‘fixing’ an earth beyond cosmetic surgery. One of the reactions to the movement has been a consistent barrage by the mainstream media of propaganda from ‘the other side’ with in the province: more and more British Columbians have been waking up to the ‘good news,’ the gospel, we are told, of such an economically vital project. They are gently prodded to be more ‘Canadian.’ The mystification of underlying issues, through the subtle ‘nationalisation’ of a conflict carefully sidesteps the integral values of the most inclusive, holistic and evolutionary vision of ‘nation’ and ‘citizen.’ The severe incompatibility of two world views reflected here is an incompatibility of the mind, of education; it is the psychosis of centres of learning that will never allow two disciplines to speak to each other, much in the way UBC professor Suzuki was targeted in the attempt to revoke his honorary degree at the University of Alberta, so that the integration of the latest understanding, or the mere conversation of ideas, is not even permitted; they failed, of course. The debate has entered the debate.
Connecting the various upheavals and resistances that are flaring up across the globe around the issue of ‘local climate change resistance,’ throws a necessary searchlight on those who are the self-declared representatives of social order, progress and ‘sanity.’
The vulnerability of countries like the low-lying coastal delta, Bangladesh, to climate change has been reiterated for decades now; yet the resistance to a 1,320MW thermal power plant at Rampal, in Bagerhat, 14km away from the UNESCO world heritage site of the Sunderbans, the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest and a natural barrier for cyclones, has rung very few alarm bells. The project, covering 1,834 acres of land and requiring 13,000 tons of coal, would require withdrawal of 9,150 cubic metres of water per hour from the River Passur. The creation of a coal stockyard and a dust disposal pond along the boundary of the river would involve more than 7,00,000 tonnes of fly-ash and 2,00,000 tonnes of bottom ash containing toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, nickel, and radium as well as emissions of 142 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 85 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide. Forget the endangered Royal Bengal tiger, the iconic Irabati dolphins would become extinct.
The Passur, Maidara and Chinkura rivers, home to at least 120 types of fish that include hilsa, parshe, bhetki, taposhi, and even tulardandi, would become uninhabitable not just to fauna and flora, but fishermen dependent on these fish.
It took UNESCO years to clearly articulate its disapproval of the coal-based power plant, a venture of the Indian National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board. Following several years of national protests and occasional international coverage, UNESCO in its world heritage committee recommendations, commended Bangladesh for ‘refraining’ from proceeding with the second phase of the construction until a complete Strategic Environmental Assessment for the region is conducted; yet, the fact that the state party chose to not consider a relocation of the site, one of its recommendations, often escapes the public discourse The state, in its press statements, re-framed the recommendations to ‘refrain’ as approval.
From the early phase of the project, when the government first embarked on perfunctory EIAs that did not meet the criteria of the scientific community at home and abroad, it relied on the de facto-post facto logic quite commonly used in such infrastructure projects across South Asia: ‘Construction is already under way.’ The promise of ‘super critical technology’ was offered, as it often is, as an adaptation and mitigation measure. But teams of independent scientists and experts, as early as 2013, had stated the obvious: ‘Any damage to any network of the rivers or any water channel that flows in and around this forest means eventual death for it. It is neither realistic nor scientific to think of the Sunderbans in isolation of its river network and the overall eco-systems. It is, thus, futile to rationalise the location of the proposed power plant in terms of its distance from the Sunderbans! Whatever the distance of the project is, if any part of the eco-system gets damaged, the Sundarbans will anyhow get endangered.’
In environmental speak, the River Passur and the Sunderbans are properties of outstanding universal value and an environmentally critical area, and the site where dredging would occur is one metre above sea level. For EIAs to be effective, decisions about mitigation, impact and adaptation must occur early on in the process. From the beginning, this was not followed and the world heritage guidelines were not met. Yet, the Sunderbans has not been declared a World Heritage site in danger; rather, the reticence and cooperation of UNESCO with Bangladesh in its initial EIAs led local green activists, journalists and scientists to question its sincerity and integrity. From 2015 to 2017, multiple oil spills took place, notably again on January 13, 2017, spilling over 1,000 tonnes of coal and hundreds of gallons of fuel oil. The government, however, has made no effort to date to remove the spilled toxic fuels although it reported to the world heritage mission that a national oil spill contingency plan had been created precisely for that purpose. The frequency and extent of damage, it seems, are already a part of the package; in this light, even the strategic environmental assessment Bangladesh has committed to completing by December of this year may be a little too late. The vulnerability of such a sensitive ecosystem to increased salinity, sea-level rise, the transshipping of 472 to 944 ships annually and the more than 190 industries that are being constructed nine kilometres away from the site indicate that present baseline conditions are themselves extremely precarious.
The results of the public hearings that took place five years ago were ignored, particularly social concerns. Displacement of as many as 4,000 families due to the plant’s construction was predicted. In spite of this, resistance by local communities has been minimal. Anupan Roy, analysing why the local (peasant) resistance failed, writes: ‘The concerns for the environment were countered by a massive government-funded propaganda campaign that made the locals confused enough to not act solely upon that basis. The state was also able to demotivate a number of the peasant leaders by paying them more than their expected compensation for the land and entice others with claims of development and industry.’
In June 2017, the National Committee for Saving the Sunderbans and environment movement BAPA presented a review report by Dr William Kleindl, research faculty at Montana State University, and Dr Jon Brodie, professional research fellow at ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at the James Cook University, including its final report on the EIA of Rampal; in addition 12 more reports from independent academics were discussed. The report warned that 33 million tonnes of dredge spoil would be removed from the Bay of Bengal and the River Passur to create a channel for coal transport; the dredge spoil would be dumped upstream or it would fill up the low land and scientist noted that there would be a high potential that this land would be flooded, resulting in underground water and river pollution and that 30 million tonnes of sediments removed in between the Akram Point and the Bay of Bengal will be dumped into the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, Greenpeace’s report predicts 6,000 premature deaths and low birth weights of 24,000 babies during its 40-year life due to air pollution from coal burning.
The fact that Bangladesh’s neighbour India refused to give permission for similarly polluting projects by the NTPC in its own territory suggests the political ecology of this conflict. It will not prevent the vulnerabilities from crossing the border though. The Sunderbans, on either side, will internalise all externalities. But if we step back a little and consider the institutional self-sabotage that is going on here it becomes clear that tools like EIAs and SEAs, when instrumentalised by state parties and equivocal international structures, stalls resistance, not construction. Bangladesh has till December 2018 to finish its SEA report. Everything indicates that there will be further ‘delay’ and further construction. Sound familiar?

Seema Amin is a writer and recently finished her MFA at the University of British Columbia.

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