Cyclone Amphan, the most powerful to strike in the Bay of Bengal in 20 years, made landfall on the India-Bangladesh coast last month. Amphan ripped off roofs, washed away homes, and flooded farms. Crucially, Bangladesh was able to mitigate impact and save lives because of its robust emergency response system with early warnings and mass-evacuations.
But coastal communities were also protected by Bangladesh’s natural storm shield: the Sundarbans. A protected World Heritage site, this mangrove forest holds land together with its roots as the tides rise. As climate change increases the intensity of extreme weather events like Amphan, the Sundarbans are at risk when they’re needed most.
But the Bangladesh government threatens to destroy these life-saving forests by building coal-fired power plants that could subject them, and the nearly 2.5 million people who depend on them for their livelihoods, to harmful pollution. And while the mangroves slow climate change by soaking up carbon, coal-fired plants contribute greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming.
Of particular concern is the proposed Rampal Thermal Power Plant, just north of the Sundarbans. Scientists and activists have repeatedly voiced concerns that the plant could spell disaster for the world’s largest mangrove forest. But the government has fought calls to cancel or relocate the project, using tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors and insisting, contrary to scientific evidence, that the plant will do no harm.
Meanwhile, international efforts to protect the Sundarbans have been stymied. A recommendation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to add the Sundarbans to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger was rejected by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which is chaired by China. The Chinese, Bosnian, and Cuban delegations even passed an amendment erasing mention of the Rampal power plant and two joint Bangladesh-China coal-fired power plants from the decision.
Climate change is a very real, immediate threat to the nearly165 million people in Bangladesh where a one-meter sea level rise could submerge almost 20 percent of the country and displace millions. Implementing rights-respecting climate policies that are consistent with the best available science is part of the government’s duty to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.
Bangladesh has been a global leader in climate change adaptation and accordingly should act swiftly to protect the mangroves. If not, it risks making the climate crisis worse while facing even more powerful cyclones without the country’s natural defense system.