‘It’ll be difficult to save Sundarbans if the tipping point is crossed’


Soumya DuttaIndian energy and environment expert Soumya Dutta recently visited Dhaka to join a discussion programme at the Brac Centre in Mohakhali. He is carrying out research on the impact of a coal-fired power plant on a mangrove forest, relatively smaller than the Sundarbans, in Mundra, Gujarat. A larger part of the forest has been completely destroyed. He spoke to Prothom Alo on the possible effect of a coal-powered power plant next to the Sundarbans.

Interviewed by Faruk Wasif

Prothom Alo (PA):
Bangladesh and India are jointly setting up a coal-fired power plant near the Sundarbans. You have seen such plants in India. What is your experience?

Soumya Dutta (SD):
The first question is whether we want a coal-fired power plant or not. The second point is whether this should be next to the Sundarbans or not. The third point is whether Indian coal is of good quality or not. It was first said that the accumulated ash would be 12.5 per cent. That is, every tonne of coal would generate 120 kgs of ash. The ash content of India’s thermal coal as is 35-40 per cent. That means much more coal will be required than was previously estimated. So, 4.7 million tonnes of coal per year will not be adequate. And if Indian coal is used, then three times the amount of ash will accumulate. And mercury and heavy metal content will increase. So the previous environmental impact evaluation will also not apply any longer. Also, radioactive and mercury effect possibly hasn’t been taken into consideration. The environment effect and social harm involved is unbelievable. We carried out a study in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh and found innumerable victims of mercury, neurological patients and kidney patients.

The aquatic area of the Sundarbans is even more intense that Singrauli. An ash pond has been located right on the side of the river Pasur. The ash will overflow, seep and leak out into the river. This will be disastrous.

PA: Bangladesh is an active delta in which Sundarbans’ rivers play an important part. How will these rivers, the forest, the biodiversity and the water bodies be harmed?

SA: There are two dimensions to this. Mangroves are very sensitive ecosystems. Both the biodiversity and the ecology will be harmed. The Rampal coal-fired power plant will emit a high rate of acidic oxide which will increase the acidity of the soil excessively. Acidity in the rivers will increase too, harming the pH balance and increasing the degree of damage. The pH content, the oxygen content and temperature are important.

On land, that is in the forest, the tiger is an indicator of nature. If there are no tigers, that means that the animals at the lower tiers of the lifecycle are at risk. The tiger’s equivalent in water is fish. There are many forms of life dependent on fish.

Thermal power plants were set up near the mangrove forest in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat of India. Over there, 60 per cent of the aquatic life cycle has been destroyed. The damage will be even higher in the Sundarbans where the aquatic life and biodiversity is much denser.

PA: But it is being said that all harmful impact will be brought under control.

SD: Once the tipping point is crossed, there will be no turning back. Canada and Australia are wealthy countries with management skills and developed technologies, yet they are unable to do anything. What magic does Bangladesh or India have? If the tipping point is crossed, neither Bangladesh nor India will be able to save the Sundarbans.

PA: What is the basic debate between energy and development for countries like Bangladesh?

SD: Actually the debate has been twisted. It depends much on what sort of ‘development’ the state wants. If the aim of development is having eight-lane highways, global standard infrastructure, huge amusement parks and shopping malls, then a massive amount of electricity will certainly be required. And if the aim of development is providing the required amount of electricity to the majority of the people to illuminate their households, for production purposes of small and medium enterprises, to generate work opportunity and provide medical and education services, then much less electricity will be required for the same level of development.

All communities need electricity, but the volume depends on the development target. A look at Sri Lanka makes the difference apparent. They are much higher on the HDI (Human Development Index) than India, but they use only two thirds of the amount of electricity as used by India. There are many such examples all around the world.

PA: Is the proportion of fuel energy requirements for economic growth same as before?

Towards the beginning of the seventies, there were some equations that indicated how much kilowatt hour electricity was for every 1000 GDP growth. The equation was calculated on the intense manufacturing industry of those times. Energy requirements were projected to be much higher then, but now one third of electricity is used for the same volume of production. Management is streamlined now. So the governments are miscalculating when they use those equations to project energy requirements for the next 20-25 years. India’s integrated energy policy of 2007 was also based on this calculation. We learnt from the examples of Europe and America of the fifties and of China in later times. Those were manufacturing intensive economies of less efficiency. Even they don’t require so much electricity now.

The world is gradually shifting dependence on manufacturing and moving towards service and primary food production. The service sector has boosted India’s economy. These countries do not realise that the importance of secondary economic production, which relies on more energy, has reduced.

China is the factory of the world. It is edging towards economic stagnation because the world does not need that amount of manufacturing. There is need to calculate afresh. Sustainability is a big thing today.

It was projected that India would need 900 thousand MW of electricity in 2031, but now it is said it can do with 40 per cent less than that. It has been assumed that the GDP growth would continue at a 8-9 per cent rate. That will not be so, that is nowhere possible anywhere in the world. There is not that much raw material and energy in the world. That means so much so much fuel is not required, so much coal is not needed. So much capital is not longer required for all that. Economists still don’t want to accept that.

PA: You have written about the end of the coal age for power production. What does the experience of India and China say about this?

SD: It hasn’t ended as yet, it is the beginning of the end. All the new power plants to start in India after 2023 will run on renewable energy. India is committed to produce 175 thousand megawatts of electricity with renewable energy within 2022. Perhaps this will eventually be possible by 2025-26.

In India, 188 thousand megawatts of electricity comes from coal. Its costs are high but average efficiency only 30 per cent. Only 30 per cent goes into power generation, the rest is wasted. Even so, the use of coal continues because those who bought the mines for 20 billion taka are hardly likely to let it slip away. That is what capital is all about. But there are places where they are being obliged to let go. The company Reliance won two bids for the 16 mega power plants to be built in India, but relinquished one because it was not profitable to generate electricity with coal. Profits will fall further in a few more years from now. In China too, the use of coal has fallen over the past two years. The demand for coal is dropping.
India would produce 50 crores of coal annually. Two years ago it had professed to increase this by two or two and a half times within five years. Now India’s energy minister says, we have coal and don’t need it. We are importing it.

Coal India has 75 million tonnes of coal in reserve and is looking for a market in Bangladesh and Nepal. About 68 per cent of electricity in India is generated from coal-fired plants. About 64-65 per cent of the coal produced is used in power production. Coal is now surplus in in the power industry and will remain so. All of it cannot be used in power production because the demand is not that high. That is why power plants are being shut down. Only 55 per cent work to the full capacity.

PA: Is renewable energy then the alternative for power generation?

If a suitable place is found, then wind or solar-operated power plants are much cheaper than coal-fired ones. Businessmen will go where the profits are higher. Reliance and Adani are turning towards solar energy. In recent times, Adani set up a 648 MW solar power plant in Tamil Nadu, the largest in India.

The best thing about renewable energy is that, whatever is not used will simply go back into nature. It is not costly. An electricity-deprived area of Bihar now meets its power needs with biomass.

PA: Many say that Bangladesh has less opportunity to produce electricity through renewable sources.

SD: It is a misconception that very strong sunlight is required for solar energy. Actually, indirect solar productivity is more where there are clouds and humidity. There is efficient technology now for heat energy and electricity. This is indirect solar.
Bangladesh may not have the renewable energy potential of India’s western region, but it has that of northeast India.

Bangladesh’s coastal area has more potential for wind energy. Near the Sundarbans the wind velocity is higher. In that sense, it should not be difficult to directly and indirectly rein in solar, river-flow and wind energy.

PA: Thank you

SD: Thank you

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