When most people think of Bangladesh's most prolific industries, it's garments -- not coal -- that comes to mind. The tiny country of Bangladesh, nestled in the armpit of India's easternmost provinces, is second only to China in garment exports. Its booming electrified clothing industry is at the mercy of the country's electricity grid, yet most of the current is supplied by gas exploration, not coal.That's because, according to SourceWatch, a meager 2.5 percent of Bangladesh's electricity is supplied by coal, from one single coal mine.
Until now, that is. Earlier this year, the government of Bangladesh embarked on two lucrative deals that would significantly increase demand on its coal reserves. The first was with India, which entered into an agreement with Bangladesh in February to build a 1,320-megawatt power plant in southern Bangladesh. The plan will be run on coal and operated jointly through the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Co. Ltd. (BIFPCL). It is one of several India-Bangladesh projects planned for the area.
The second is a joint-operated power plant with China, agreed upon last month. Its two units will generate 620 MW each and will be run through the Bangladesh-China Power Co. Ltd. (BCPCL). Two Chinese firms, SEPCOIII Electric Power Construction Corp. and HTG Development Group Corp., are financing the operation.
But even though Bangladesh desperately needs more electricity (the country's power grid is one of the smallest in the world, with almost half of its population without access to power), not everyone is confident that the country's plans to increase its coal power generation is a good thing.
That is, in part, because at least one of the proposed coal plants will sit inside the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest mangrove forest on earth. Local farmers say the plants will pollute and destroy the area's delicate ecology, home to Bengal tigers and other endangered species. According to local farmers, the plants would also force thousands of residents to relocate. Some have accused the developer of the Bangladesh-China plant of shady land grabs that residents say are preventing them from earning a living.
Last week, protests against the two projects reached a fever pitch. Police opened fire on a crowd of 15,000 on Monday, killing four and injuring at least 12 villagers who had turned out to protest the new Bangladesh-China plants. Thousands of people were also charged with vandalism and assault, although villagers say the protest was peaceful. Human rights and environmental organizations are calling for an investigation.
Critics point out that this is also not the first time the Bangladeshi police have opened fire on protesters. In 2013, hundreds of protesters were killed or injured at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory. The family members and survivors of the factory collapse were rallying to demand compensation for back wages. In 2006, police opened fire on villagers protesting another coal plant.
Last year, after several attacks against police personnel, the government of Bangladesh announced that police would have the power to fire back against suspected attackers if the police felt they needed to protect themselves. Interestingly, the rules of police conduct don't provide authorization for firing into a crowd. But the recent deaths and the sweeping "arrests" of villagers who may have been present at the gatherings paint a worrisome picture for both human rights and the Sundarbans' environmental legacy
The expansion of Bangladesh's electricity grid comes at an opportune time for the country. But the temptation to dig deep into its coal reserves highlights a real dilemma that many countries are facing right now: How does one balance the demands of 21st-century advancement, the impacts of climate change and the demand for ecologically-smart decisions that protect citizens? With China and India both eying the Bangladeshi coastline for investment, it's not hard to see the quick answer. But will it be an investment that will protect Bangladesh's fertile delta from climate change in coming years?
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.