UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee on Thursday gave Bangladesh one more year to submit an updated report on the state of conservation of the Sunderbans to it to determine whether the world’s unique mangrove forest would be relegated to the list of World Heritage in Danger.
According to the decision, Bangladesh will have to submit the report by February 1, 2020 and the committee will make the decision in its 44th session in China in 2020.
The Heritage Committee in its 43rd session, going on in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, 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.
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 Sunderbans.
World Heritage Committee chairperson Abulfas Garayev, 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, as New Age watched the committee proceedings on live broadcast.
The land-mark decision followed an amendment proposal on the draft report about the Suderbans recommending its immediate relegation, which was placed by a group of three countries –China, Cuba and Bosnia and Harzegovina – on Tuesday.
Bangladesh delegation chief, also PM Sheikh Hasina’s energy advisor, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury at the meeting on Thursday admitted that the country would follow all the recommendations made by the committee.
Citing lines of Bangladesh’s national anthem that invokes love for the nature, Tawfiq also told the committee that the people of Bangladesh considered the nature as mother and felt deep shock if it got pale.
The UNESCO committee evaluated the fate of the Sunderbans in the meeting following the recommendation from its official advisor IUCN that the Sunderbans 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.
The committee further requested Bangladesh to provide information on the dredging activities in the Sunderbans region, the implementation of the integrated freshwater inflow management plan, the implementation of Bangladesh’s proposals for introducing spatial monitoring and reporting tool, the development of the Tiger Action Plan and National Tiger Recovery Programme (NTRP), expansion of the wildlife sanctuaries and the adoption of Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 in order to protect and expand the Sundarbans.
It also 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.
It urged Bangldesh to continue to take all necessary mitigation measures, as may be recommended by the structural environment assessment study to address the concerns previously expressed by the UNESCO committee and the 2016 joint WHC-IUCN reactive monitoring mission.
The UNESCO committee expressed concern about the development of 154 industrial projects upstream of the Sunderbans and requested the country not to proceed with such activities without any strategic environmental assessment and environmental impact assessments.
It also regretted Bangladesh not finalising the national oil spill chemical and contingency plan.
But, the committee welcomed the formation of an India-Bangladesh joint working group on the Sunderbans 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.
The final recommendations made by the UNESCO Heritage Committee, however, omitted the names of the Rampal Power Plant and the two coal-fired power plants at Taltoli and Kolapara as opposed in the amendment proposal made by China-led three countries, the UNESCO documents show.
But, it adopted China’s proposal on providing information on the dredging activities in the Sunderbans to UNESCO.
‘China and India are supporting Bangladesh’s devastating development works in the Sunderbans region for their own interests as they were developing highly polluting power plants and other factories in the region,’ said Professor Anu Muhammad, the member-secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports.
‘They would not be able to initiate such projects in the protected areas in their respective countries. The incumbent government, on the other hand, does not keep its pledges made at several international forums not to initiate any projects harmful for the Sunderbans. They rather appointed lobbyist for continuing development works at the expense of the Sunderbans,’ Anu told New Age.
Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon joint secretary Sharif Jamil said that China at the UNESCO committee meeting not only tried to save its projects at Payra but also India’s projects at Rampal.
‘China proposed for providing dredging-related information for its strategic interest of getting information about India’s ship movements in rivers of Bangladesh under the river protocol between the two countries,’ Sharif said.
‘India will never set up any power plant project that might damage the part of the Sunderbans in its territory,’ he added.
For its outstanding universal value, the part of the Sunderbans in Bangladesh was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997, even 10 years after the UN body on education, science and culture had listed the Indian part known as the Sundarbans National Park on its heritage list in 1987, UNESCO documents show.
About the uniqueness of the Sunderbans part in Bangladesh, UNESCO on its website writes that the most biologically rich areas of the mangrove forest are in the east where freshwater influences are greater.
The heritage site, reads the website, supports exceptional biodiversity in its terrestrial, aquatic and marine habitats, ranging from micro to macro flora and fauna, including the Royal Bengal Tiger, Ganges and Irawadi dolphins, estuarine crocodiles and the critically endangered endemic river terrapin.
Its exceptional biodiversity is expressed in a wide range of flora; 334 plant species belonging to 245 genera and 75 families, 165 algae and 13 orchid species. It is also rich in fauna with 693 species of wildlife which includes 49 mammals, 59 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 210 white fishes, 24 shrimps, 14 crabs and 43 mollusks species, the website mentions.
The varied and colourful bird-life found along the waterways of the property is one of its greatest attractions, including 315 species of waterfowl, raptors and forest birds including nine species of kingfisher and the magnificent white-bellied sea eagle, it goes on.
But, the UNESCO website points out, the existing Sunderbans site in India and its adjacent parts in Bangladesh are thus in the strongly saline zone where diversity is lowest and the trees are stunted and have a poor form.