For one more year only

Sundarbans escapes relegation to be 'world heritage in danger'

_By Raquib Siddiqi16 Jul, 2019 | 650 Views|-+
Dhaka : The United Na-tions Educational, Scien-tific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)'s 21-member World Heritage Committee (WHC) has decided to defer relegation of the status of The Sundarbans - a world heritage site - to "world heritage in danger" by one more year - until 44th meeting in China in 2020.

The WHC again urged the Bangladesh government to halt a large-scale industrial construction around the mangrove forest.

The decision came in the 43rd world heritage committee meeting held between June 30 and July 10 in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.

The World Heritage Committee has requested the Bangladesh government to submit all the updated documents of the government's initiatives taken for the conservation of the Sundarbans.

Bangladesh is required to submit the report by February 1, 2020 and the WHC will evaluate those documents in its 44th session to be held in June next year and then decide whether or not the Sundarbans will be listed as the "Heritage in Danger".

The Heritage Committee in its 43rd session also requested Bangladesh to invite a joint reactive monitoring mission, comprising the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, to the site by the end of this year (2019).

The joint mission will assess the state of conservation, in particular the level of threats to the hydrological and ecological dynamics that underpin the outstanding universal value of the Sundarbans.

The committee regretted that the government was yet to finalise the National Oil Spill Chemical and Contingency Plan providing further information and data on the monitoring of long-term impacts from shipping incidents involving spills of hazardous materials.

The WHC requested the government to implement the relevant recommendations of Structural Environment Assessment (SEA) and submit its necessary documents to the WHC Centre.

It also requested the government to implement Tiger Action Plan and National Tiger Recovery Plan, expansion of the wildlife sanctuaries and the adoption of the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 to protect and expand the Sundarbans.

Abulfas Garayev, Chairper-son of World Heritage Committee, while approving the committee decision, said that the committee made the decision taking into consideration observations from all the participants for the past few days.

However, the WHC expressed concern about the likely environmental impacts of the future large-scale industrial projects around the world's largest mangrove forest on its outstanding universal value and requested the government to take all necessary mitigation measures as per the recommendations made earlier in 2016 by the members of joint WHC-IUCN reactive monitoring mission.

The UNESCO committee evaluated the fate of the Sundarbans in the meeting following the recommendation from its official advisor IUCN that the Sundarbans should be relegated as an endangered site due to ongoing construction works of the coal-based power plants and over one hundred industrial projects to be constructed near the largest mangrove forest of the world.

But, the committee welcomed the formation of an India-Bangladesh joint working group on the Sundarbans and requested Bangladesh to keep the World Heritage Centre informed of the concrete actions and outcomes that would arise from the working group measures.

And, it appreciated the confirmation that any future dredging of the Pashur River will be subject to an environmental impact assessment.

Before taking the decision, the 21 members discussed the issue in detail.

China, Cuba and Bosnia and Herzegovina first proposed not to include the Sundar-bans in the danger list.

During the discussion, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Indonesia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Zimbabwe took the position in favour of that. India as an observer of the committee also spoke in favour of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh voice

A Bangladesh government delegation - representing four organisations - led by Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, Prime Minister's advisor on energy, power and mineral resources, went to meet UNESCO officials and attend WHC meeting to defend Bangladesh's position against demotion of Sundarbans from the status of 'world heritage' to 'world heritage in danger' as was proposed by the UNESCO and clear up 'misunderstanding'.

Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury argued that the power plant that Bangladesh is building is far away from the core site of the Sundarbans. This plant is very important for nearly five million people of Bangladesh.

Before departing Dhaka, Mohammad Hossain, Director General of the power cell at the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, who is also a member of the delegation, told a Bengali daily that "The government has taken several steps to save the Sundarbans following all the UNESCO conditions," but, "this might not have reached UNESCO properly. This has led to "some misunderstandings".

The first meeting

It may be mentioned that similar inter-ministerial delegation went to the UNESCO headquarters in 2017 and took part in a meeting with the organisation's top officials.

The delegation at that time, also, joined in the 41st annual meeting of the heritage committee held in Poland's Krakow.

On return, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chou-dhury also leader of the delegation that time, claimed at a press conference that there were no obstacles to go ahead with the Rampal project as UNESCO had withdrawn its objections following Bangladesh government's deliberations.

IUCN recommendations

Following a joint IUCN-UNESCO mission in 2016, IUCN advised the world heritage committee of UNESCO to call for the cancellation and relocation of Rampal power plant, a mega project planned 65 kms from the site.

It is reported that UNESCO also requested Bangladesh to submit to the world heritage centre an updated report on the state of conservation of the forest and the implementation of the above which would be examined by the world heritage committee at its 43rd session in 2019.

The UNESCO said that Bangladesh government was very slow in halting the construction of the Rampal power plant and it did not respect the decision to disallow factories in the vicinity of forest.

It further said that over 150 industrial projects were also active upstream of the site and their associated shipping and dredging activities further threatened the hydrological and ecological dynamics of the region.

Local concern

Sultana Kamal, Convener of National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans, said, "It is unfortunate for us, the people of Bangladesh, that the Sundarbans World Heritage Site has been endangered by a consortium of nations who are building coal plants at Rampal (Maitree), Taltali (Barishal) and Kalapara (Payra and Patuakhali) - plants that do not have state of the art pollution control technologies or waste disposal systems."

"If not stopped, these plants will put the Sundarbans at significant risk of severe air and water pollution," she said in a press statement following the UNESCO decision to defer action.

Earlier on June 28, she termed the establishment of Rampal power plant near the Sundarbans as illegal and anti-constitutional.

The Sundarbans

In 1997, the Sundarbans, one of the largest mangrove forests, one of the largest in the world (140,000 ha) and home to the Bengal tiger, was enlisted as the natural heritage of the world for its exceptional biodiversity in both terrestrial and marine environments.

The Sundarbans lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. It is adjacent to the border of India's Sundarbans World Heritage site inscribed in 1987.

The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.

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