By. Farzana Faruk Jhumu

জলে কুমির ডাঙ্গায় বাঘ (literal translation: Crocodiles in water, Tigers in Land) means “between the devil and the deep sea” or simply “ danger in both sides”. This proverb in Bengali came from the landscape of the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans are a gift of mother nature to her beautiful daughter, Bangladesh, as the longest mangrove forest in the world. It’s not just a piece of forest that defies the border of Bangladesh and India; it’s also the home of the famous Royal Bengal Tiger. The Sundarbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a vital ecological, economic, and cultural lifeline for Bangladesh. Yet, this breathtaking ecosystem is in danger due to the conflict between economic aspirations and environmental realities.

Bangladesh’s economic rise is deeply entangled with the Sundarbans. Bangladesh is the land of fish, and the mangroves are home to large fish populations. It supports honey, wood, and ecotourism industries and serves as a natural barrier against cyclones and storm surges, protecting millions of lives and billions of dollars in infrastructure. About 3.5 million people live around the Sundarbans and depend directly or indirectly on this forest.

However, the proposed Rampal coal-fired power plant, situated alarmingly close to the Sundarbans, looms large to symbolize this contradiction. Despite widespread criticism from environmentalists and scientists, the project promises to generate much-needed electricity for Bangladesh’s growing population. The importance of energy solvency is undeniable, but the potential ramifications are dire. Coal pollution from Rampal could contaminate air and water, disrupt delicate ecosystems, and exacerbate climate change, leading to rising sea levels and increased storm intensity. Even if Rampal is at a “safe” distance from Sundarbans, the coal comes from India using the river route of Sundarbans, and the risk of water pollution is increasing. The economic cost would be catastrophic, erasing the gains the power plant seeks to achieve.

This Sundarbans Day (14 February), Bangladesh needs to make climate commitments, putting the health and well-being of Sundarbans at the heart of policy-making. The minister from the Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change (MoFECC), Saber Hossain Chowdhury, has declared a 100-day plan, including potential legal action for sustainable development and preventing forest encroachment.

Bangladesh, a signatory to the Paris Agreement, has committed to ambitious emission reduction targets. Financing renewable instead of fossil fuel projects is very much needed for these commitments and casts doubt on the nation’s leadership in climate action. Investing in solar, wind, and other clean energy sources can ensure Bangladesh’s energy security without sacrificing the Sundarbans.

The narrative of economic development versus environmental protection is often presented as a zero-sum game. However, Bangladesh can and must break free from this false dichotomy. Investing in green infrastructure, promoting sustainable resource management, and fostering innovation can protect the Sundarbans and propel Bangladesh toward inclusive and sustainable development.

Bangladesh must follow the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and commit to protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030. Regional cooperation is needed to protect this transboundary resource, and monitoring is needed by both Bangladesh and India. The Sundarbans, gasping for breath underwater, await a decision that will not only determine its fate but also shape the path of a nation for generations to come.