In his 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie describes the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest that traces the southwestern edge of Bangladesh, as “so thick that history has hardly ever found the way in.” For his characters, the forest is a site of magic and danger, a mythic place from which it is impossible to escape.
Today, you can visit this eerie jungle, taking a boat from the town of Khulna and making your way slowly through the narrow islets of the Meghna River, finishing your journey where the river meets the sea, possibly catching sight of a pink Irrawaddy dolphin on your way. If you leave the boat and step onto shore, your feet sinking into the deep purple silt, you come face to face with the world’s strangest trees, a mass of reedy, irregular trunks with roots submerged in water. This looks like a place men have yet to subdue. “The Sundarbans: it swallows them up,” Mr. Rushdie writes.
We know that Bangladesh will be one of the first nations to be transformed by the rising temperatures that come with man-made climate change. The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, may be one of the country’s only resources to mitigate against the coming devastation. Straddling the border between the land and the sea, the mangrove provides a crucial buffer from the harsh waves that swirl in the Bay of Bengal. Mangrove trees are also known as carbon sinks: They reduce greenhouse gases by capturing carbon dioxide and taking it out of circulation.
Yet the greatest blow to the Sundarbans may be from within. The Bangladeshi government has broken ground on a coal-fired power plant to be built in Rampal, just 14 kilometers northeast of the forest. The plans have stirred controversy in Bangladesh, raising the issue of whether, given the complex developmental challenges the country faces, it can afford to consider the environment.
Officials in Bangladesh have often acted as though the country considered itself simply too poor and small for its government to care about the environment. In some important ways, they have a point. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was elected (for the second time) in 2009, she inherited a power grid that was failing to meet even the very basic needs of the country. In the capital, Dhaka, people in homes and offices suffered through hours of load-shedding, rural electrification had all but come to a halt, and the industry for ready-to-wear garments — the country’s economic engine — was taking a major hit.
Ms. Hasina, to her credit, has done much to bolster Bangladesh’s power output, mostly by renting plants and buying power from neighboring India. If Bangladesh is to maintain its 6 percent annual growth rate, we need power — and we need it fast. Dwindling gas reserves mean that coal is the cheapest and quickest option, and Rampal, which is projected to produce 1,320 megawatts per year, would seem to be part of the solution.
But the Rampal plan is a bad bet. First is its proximity to the ecologically sensitive areas of the mangrove. Emissions of mercury and sulfur from coal burning will affect the delicate ecological balance of the forest.
Second, Rampal will not be fired by Bangladesh’s coal reserves, but with coal imported from India. This coal will enter Bangladesh through the Passar River, at a junction — Akram Point, two to three kilometers wide — that will have to be dredged to accommodate the massive “mother” vessels that will carry the 3.2 million tons of coal that Rampal will need every year. From there, the mother vessels will transfer their cargo onto lighter boats that will carry the coal upriver. Coal will travel through the forest daily, polluting the river and the surrounding area with coal dust.
So, the plant should be built elsewhere. But where? With a tiny landmass, the challenge of how to keep up with the needs of Bangladesh’s population of 164 million (and growing) should not be underestimated. In Ms. Hasina’s first term, Bangladesh did a better job feeding its people and sharply reduced its dependency on foreign aid. But the sharp increase in agricultural output has come with a cost. Excessive use of groundwater has meant that large swaths of land have become contaminated with arsenic and salt water. Better long-term planning, and techniques like the harvesting of rainwater, might result in more sustainable growth.
When it comes to the environment, Bangladesh has been a victim. There is a pervasive sense that we have been given a raw deal, so that when it comes to policy, the priority should be growth by any means necessary: To survive, it is we who must swallow the forest. But it is important for Bangladeshis to recognize that we are not just passive victims of environmental calamity, but active agents in creating a sustainable future.
Taking this position would allow us to demand, with a clear conscience, that the rest of the world make changes to its carbon output, and to ask for funds to help us plan for a future of rising temperatures. We cannot just put out our hands and plead desperation when we haven’t done everything we can to militate against the wrenching consequences of climate change. If the government doesn’t stand by at least minimal principles of environmentalism, it will lose its ethical basis to stir the rest of the world to act.
Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel A Golden Age.