The government has planned to conduct the Unesco-prescribed Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in the Sundarbans and adjoining areas to assess the cumulative impacts of development in the world's largest mangrove forest for going ahead with the 1320 MW coal-fired Rampal Power Plant projects and other industrial schemes.
According to official sources, the government has moved for such a comprehensive study following the Unesco Resolution (Decision 38 COM 7Bb.64 and 39 COM 7B.8) adopted at the 41st session of World Heritage Committee in Poland in July last.
In response to the move to implement the Rampal and some other industrial projects near the Sundarbans, the Unesco resolution asked Bangladesh to conduct the SEA to assess the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts at a landscape and regional scale and uphold its Outstanding Universal Value (OVU).
Without naming the Rampal project, the Unesco resolution also urged the government to keep suspended all the large industrial projects in the Sundarbans and adjoining areas until the SEA is completed.
Officials said the SEA will involve the environmental evaluation of proposed policies, plans and programmes (PPP) in the entire areas of the Sundarbans listed as a world heritage site in 1997.
They said seven key issues like water resources, industry, power, communications/transportation, urbanisation, tourism and shipping will be covered in the SEA to assess the potential impacts of the industrial and urban projects.
Official sources said the Environment and Forests Ministry in consultation with the Power Division has finalised the terms of reference (ToR) to appoint an international firm to conduct the proposed SEA.
As per the Unesco resolution, Bangladesh will have to prepare the SEA and submit its report at the 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee in December 2018.
But many environmental experts have expressed doubt whether it will be possible to complete the survey in just one year as it requires 18-24 months to conduct such a job but the government will have to submit its assessment report by December next year.
Dr MA Matin, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), a leading environmental campaigner, said any SEA normally takes 18-24 months to be completed as such a study has to be very comprehensive in nature.
He said Unesco has asked for the SEA not only for the project but for all the 320 industrial ventures around the Sundarbans as these will turn the world's largest mangrove forest into an urban area.
Contacted, Additional Secretary to the Environment and Forests Ministry Muhammad Ziaur Rahman, who is responsible for the SEA-related work, declined to make any comment in this regard.
Meanwhile, Rampal project's Indian EPC contractor has already started work and mobilised manpower. The power plant's first unit is scheduled to come into operation by June 2019 and the second one by December 2019.