THE Bangladesh journal ‘Bangal Energy’ reported exuberantly in February 2019, that the owner of the Rampal plant, Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company, ‘has been contributing significantly for the social development at Rampal in Bagerhat. Under its community development initiatives, the company distributed 76 water filters to 15 schools and four colleges of Rampal and 35 wheel chairs to physically challenged people of nearby villages of the project site. A free medical camp for the villagers was also organised by the company’ (Energy Bangla 2019).
Fichtner Water & Wind GmbH, a subsidiary of the Fichtner Group, published a description of its own project in 2013 which included a contract for a feasibility study about a ‘pier facility in the delivery area of a coal-fired power plant’, evaluation of ‘the necessary sole securing in sub-areas of the water body to control the influences… from ship operation, in a constructive and economic respect’ (Fichtner Group 2013: 6, translation by the author) The Mongla port and Rampal power plant are not mentioned in this publication explicitly, but this project description and the attached model of the project are clear indicator that this port and plant are meant.
Faulty EIA and Rampal CFPP
THERE are numerous reports about the lack of public consultation and illegal/violent actions against local villagers in the process of land acquisition (South Asians for Human Rights 2015) for the project which are obligatory steps in any environment impact assessment process. The EIA was approved by the government of Bangladesh’s Department of Environment in 2013 and it was conducted by the ‘Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services. Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, professor of environmental science at Khulna University criticised this EIA and arguing that it ‘uses secondary data collected before 2010 for most of the parameters; it fails to use proper location and methodology for primary data collection of air, water, soil, biodiversity; it compares sulphur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels in the Sunderbans with that of urban areas, as if Sunderbans is an urban area, and not an ecologically critical area’ (Preetha 2015).
John H Knox was the special rapporteur on the issue of human rights of UN Human Rights Council looking at issues of safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and in his last statement in July 2018 he critised the government of Bangladesh for allowing ‘industrialisation’ of the Sunderbans through Rampal CFPP and other plants:
The accelerating industrialisation of the Sunderbans threatens not only this unique ecosystem — which hosts Bengal tigers, Ganges river dolphins and other endangered species — but also poses serious risks to the human rights of the 6.5 million people whose lives, health, housing, food and cultural activities depend directly on a safe, healthy and sustainable Sunderbans forest.
Despite objections from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Bangladesh has approved more than 320 industrial projects in the area, including the massive Rampal coal-fired power plant, bypassing requirements for public participation and environmental impact assessment.
Prime minister praises Fichtner Group
THE prime minister has argued several times in public in the past years that the Rampal CFPP is economically, environmentally and socially well planned and an important plant to guarantee future energy supply. Al Gore argued in a discussion with the prime minister at the Davos World Economic Summit in 2017 that this power plant is unsustainable, uneconomic and environmentally unsafe; this discussion is documented and available on youtube. The PM has named the German Fichtner Group’s involvement at the Rampal CFPP as a marker of ‘highest standards’. She said, as reported in Energy Bangla in 2016, ‘world famous German firm Fichtner Group has been appointed as the consultant to ensure the highest standard in setting up the plant and hence, there is no scope to raise questions over the quality of work.’ The government named in its report in 2016 that the Fichtner Group as a ‘reputed’ consultant: ‘BIFPCL has appointed an internationally reputed engineering consultant (M/s Fichtner of Germany) as owner’s engineer for engineering, project management and quality control.’
Albrecht Conze, German ambassador in Bangladesh for the period of 2012 and 2014 criticised the location of the Rampal in an interview with a Bangladeshi journal and stated that it is a ‘little adventurous or even hazardous to plan something just a few kilometre from the borders (of the Sunderbans) with regard to the status’ (Green Watch 2014).
Fichtner Group office opening in Dhaka
THE Fichtner Group has expended its projects in Bangladesh in the last years and states that it took part in different projects of Bangladesh for five decades even before 1971. Beside Rampal CFPP and Martabari CFPP, actual projects are ‘embankment protection and flood control program’, an off-grid hybrid system project which combines a diesel power plant and solar farm. In September 2018, the Fichtner Group opened an office in Dhaka. Representatives of bank, universities and of the German Embassy in Dhaka joined the opening ceremony including Tawfiq Ali (chief representative of Commerzbank), barrister Omar H Khan (Legal Counsel for Environmental Impact Assessment Process in Bangladesh), Shahriar Chowdhury (Director Centre for Energy Research/United International University) and Mr Michael Schultheiss (Deputy Head of Mission German Embassy).
The Fichtner Group’s project web site mentions neither the Rampal nor the Matarbar CFPP in Bangladesh (as of February 20, 2019). It is the project ‘Bank protection and flood control program’ that is mentioned in the website and it assists the Bangladesh Water Development Board and its ‘River Bank Improvement Program’. This programme is partly financed by the World Bank Group. The website says, ‘Fichtner is helping the government water agency to prepare for and implement this programme. In an initial project phase, we prepared a technical feasibility study, an economic analysis, environmental and social impact studies, a relocation concept; the area of the study includes ‘two river sections: 26 km and 24 km’.
Corruption case in DR Congo against Fichtner
THE Fichtner Group project office in Democratic Republic of Congo was involved in a corruption case in the ‘Regional and Domestic Power Markets Development Project’ in DR Congo in 2016 which was also financed by the World Bank Group and is part of the ‘Southern Africa Power Market Development Project’. World Bank Group outlisted Fichtner Group from all their tenders for 15 months June 2017 (Cassin 2017, World Bank 2017).
PMEDE/SAMPP is an integral part of ongoing constructions or planning of several hydropower dams on the Inga falls in the Congo River. Two dams (Inga I and II) are already in operation. The plan for Ingo III is in full swing and expected to be one of the largest hydro power dams in the world for which resettlement of around 35,000 people would be necessary (Vidal 2016, Misser 2018, Rivers Without Borders 2018).
The World Bank temporarily withdrew its support to Ingoa III in 2016 because of corruption inside the DR Congo government. In September 2018, around 40 Congolese CSOs brought the corruption to fore and demanded a moratorium of the project until ‘good governance of the project and protection of the rights of local communities are established.’ (Rivers Without Borders 2018).
The Fichtner Group got a contract to conduct a feasibility study for a planned 1200 MW Baram Hydropower project in Malaysia which was part of the ‘Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy Program’ in Borneo, Malaysia. The project started in 2008. Fichtner Group described the background and aims of its contract as: ‘Under the ‘Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy Program’, implementation of five hydropower projects is planned by 2020 in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, Borneo. With an installed capacity of 1200 MW, the Baram Project is the second biggest hydropower scheme in Sarawak… During the first phase of this study, Fichtner identified and assessed project options and, during a second phase, a detailed investigation was undertaken of the favored options, with assessment of all technical, environmental and economic aspects’ (Wayback machine 2016).
Since the start of the project local and international CSOs protested against the dam that eventually resulted into a fierce public debate on negative socio-economic and environmental impact of the project. The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss CSO, was in close contact with Malaysian CSOs and in 2012, it published a research report. Their press release says, ‘German engineers plan to flood the rainforest of Borneo Sarawak, and it’s native demand the pull out of German Fichtner GmbH & Co KG from controversial dam project in Malaysia’. The release continues, ‘1,200 MW Baram dam would flood a rainforest area of at least 400km and displace 20,000 indigenous people. The affected communities have been fighting the construction of the dam with letters and protests’. The local Sarawak government stopped the construction of this HPP in 2015 arguing that this dam needs more evolution ‘by international dam and environment experts’ (Aferia 2016).
Rampal plant, CSOs policies, Fichtner Group’s involvement
MANY reports or statements of research institutes, academics, CSOs and journalists from Bangladesh, India and other countries have been published in the past years that criticised the specific location of the Rampal plant near the Sunderbans. In sum these publications have proved the harmful, unsustainable environmental and socio-ecnomic impact of the Rampal CFPP. CSOs from Bangladesh, India, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and other countries have used all well-known tools to lobby, advocacy and demonstrations in recent years in their campaigns to stop the construction of this plant. They have established transnational networks of common information sharing and some coordinated international public activities. But, as of now, all these activities have not stopped the ongoing construction of the Rampal CFPP.
What are the reasons for this fact? Surely the main reason is the unholy alliance between the governments of Bangladesh and India and of the Fichtner Group. Also local politicians, landlords and bureaucrats in Khulna, in which Rampal and the Mongla port are located, and in neighbouring districts are part of this unholy alliance. All these actors are aware of the ongoing debate and campaigns terming the Rampal plant as a project with negative overall impact and try to neutralise their political impact with different means. Some actors are using also illegal tools. The Fichtner Group’s strategy is to hinder any public debate in Germany by refusing any public statement about its involvement in this CCFP plant and to emphasise publicly its renewable energy projects. Up to now this strategy is widely successful.
The critics of the Rampal plant and other CFPPs in Bangladesh on the other hand will surely try to intensify (a) their research about alternative energy mix not based on CFPPs, impacts of ongoing CFPP constructions and respective engineering consultancy, (b) their cooperation with national, German and other international CSOs and (c) lobby work with the UNESCO World Heritage Commission and other international organisations inside and outside of the UN system.
Whether the current plans of the energy policy of the government of Bangladesh, which are based mainly on the constructions of new coal-fired power plants, will change or can be partly stopped by its critics or will be fully implemented in the coming year remains to be seen.
Dr Dieter Reinhardt is a political scientist at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
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