UNESCO puts Sundarbans on danger list

The signboard of the under-construction coal-based Rampal power plant, established on the bank of the Poshur River, close to Sundarbans, which led the UNESCO to put the mangrove forest on the danger list of world heritage sites. (AN photo by Shehab Sumon)
Updated 18 June 2019

UNESCO puts Sundarbans on danger list

  • Bangladesh increases protected area of mangrove forests as experts seek urgent report

DHAKA: One of the world’s largest mangrove forests has been placed on UNESCO’s danger list despite increased conservation efforts by the Bangladeshi government.

The Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site covering 10,000 square kilometers in the Bay of Bengal, has come under threat from the encroachment of industrial developments.

In a bid to help preserve the region’s unique biodiversity, Bangladesh has increased the forest area designated as a conservation sanctuary from 23 percent to 52 percent, banned the extraction of natural resources there, and stepped up poacher patrols.

However, environmentalists say more urgently needs to be done, and UNESCO has called for a detailed update from the Bangladeshi government on the conservation status of the mangroves.

The reserve, which is the main habitat of the endangered Bengal tiger, is located in southwestern Bangladesh between the rivers Baleswar in the east and Harinbanga in the west.

Sixty percent of the forest lies in Bangladesh with the rest in India, and it is internationally recognized for the high biodiversity of mangrove flora and fauna both on land and in the water. UNESCO declared the forest a World Heritage Site in 1997.

UNESCO’s decision to place the Sundarbans on its danger list follows concerns from the agency and local environmentalists over the ongoing construction of the coal-powered Rampal plant on the edge of the forest.

In a recent report on the situation, UNESCO said: “Little progress has been achieved to address the significant threats to the property. Despite the committee’s requests, no serious consideration was given to possible alternatives to the construction of the Rampal power plant, and its construction is progressing.”

It added that the work was taking place in the absence of a strategic environmental assessment (SEA).

UNESCO also expressed its concerns over the building of two other power plants in Payra, the dredging of the Payra River, and several other developments and industrial works in the region.

It has urged the Bangladeshi government to allow one of its expert teams to assess the state of the mangrove area and look into further preservation measures, while also calling for an updated report on the conservation status of the forest by Feb. 1, 2020.

Based on the findings of the report, a decision on the future of the Sundarbans would then be taken at the 44th session of UNESCO to be held in Azerbaijan.

Dhaka has already initiated various projects to conserve the biodiversity of the mangrove forest.

Amir Hossain, forest conservator of Khulna circle, said the government last year increased the area of the sanctuary to cover 52 percent, banning “the collection of all types of forest resources from the sanctuary areas. It will help increase the biodiversity of the forest including wildlife and trees,” he told Arab News.

“In addition, with the help of USAID (US Agency for International Development) and GIZ (German agency for international cooperation) we have introduced smart patrolling in the mangrove forest to check the poachers’ movements and monitor the illegal encroachment of the local people inside the deep forest.

“We have developed a strong database and can monitor everything around the forest area using GPS,” Hossain added.

He said the Bangladeshi government was also working to implement the SEA of the area. “An international tender has been called in this regard and we hope to start the process very soon. Once completed, we will get an integrated environmental assessment report which will portray a clear picture of the ecology, biodiversity and other important environmental aspects of that area,” Hossain said.

The delay in the introduction of the National Oil Spill and Chemical Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) was one of the major concerns of UNESCO leading to the Sundarbans being placed on its danger list.

Dr. Fahmida Khatun, director of the natural resource management wing of the Bangladeshi Department of Environment, told Arab News that the government had already finalized a draft of the NOSCOP which would be forwarded to the cabinet committee for final approval.

However, environmentalists remain worried about continued industrialization around the area of the mangrove forest.

“The eco-system of the Sundarbans is very sensitive which is completely different to any other forest of the world. Three different parts of the Sundarbans have different types of vegetation,” Prof. Abdullah Harun, of Khulna University, told Arab News.

Harun, a renowned Bangladeshi environmentalist, added: “From an environmental point of view, Rampal power plant is still a big concern for us. Based on this power plant, rapid industrialization is also going on in that area and we anticipate that this industrialization flow will increase, which will have dire consequences for the existence of the mangrove.”

Hong Kong police warn of ‘live fire’ if they face deadly weapons from protesters

Updated 17 November 2019

Hong Kong police warn of ‘live fire’ if they face deadly weapons from protesters

  • Protests have tremored through the global financial hub since June
  • China has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate the dissent

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police Monday warned for the first time that they may use “live rounds” after pro-democracy protesters fired arrows and threw petrol bombs at officers at a beseiged university campus, as the crisis engulfing the city veered deeper into danger.
Protests have tremored through the global financial hub since June, with many in the city of 7.5 million people venting fury at eroding freedoms under Chinese rule.
China has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate the dissent, and there have been concerns that Beijing could send in troops to put an end to the spiralling unrest.
Three protesters have been shot by armed police in the unrelenting months of protests. But all in scuffles as chaotic street clashes played out — and without such warnings being given.
A day of intense clashes, which saw a police officer struck in the leg by an arrow and protesters meet police tear gas with volleys of petrol bombs, intensified as night fell.
Clashes rolled across Kowloon, with the epicenter around the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), where scores of defiant demonstrators set large fires to prevent police from conducting a threatened raid on the campus.
They hunkered down under umbrellas from occasional fire from water cannon and hurled molotov cocktails at an armored police vehicle, leaving it ablaze on a flyover near the campus.
Police declared the campus a “riot” scene — a rioting conviction carries up to 10 years in jail — and blocked exits as spokesman Louis Lau issued a stark warning in a Facebook live broadcast.
“I hereby warn rioters not to use petrol bombs, arrows, cars or any deadly weapons to attack police officers,” he said.
“If they continue such dangerous actions, we would have no choice but to use the minimum force necessary, including live rounds, to fire back.”
Police said they fired at a car late Sunday that had driven at a line of officers near the campus — but the vehicle reversed and escaped.
Protesters at the campus appeared resolute — a twist in tactics by a leaderless movement so far defined by its fluid, unpredictable nature.
“I feel scared. There’s no way out, all I can do is fight to the end,” said one protester joining the barricade in front of the university building.
“We need a base to keep our gear and have some rest at night before another fight in the morning,” another called Kason, 23, told AFP.
On Sunday, activists parried attempts by police to break through into the PolyU campus, firing rocks from a homemade catapult from the university roof, while an AFP reporter saw a team of masked archers — several carrying sports bows — patrolling the campus.
Violence has worsened in recent days, with two men killed in separate incidents linked to the protests this month.
Chinese President Xi Jinping this week issued his most strident comments on the crisis, saying it threatened the “one country, two systems” model under which Hong Kong has been ruled since the 1997 handover from Britain.
Demonstrators last week engineered a “Blossom Everywhere” campaign of blockades and vandalism, which forced the police to draft in prison officers as reinforcements, shut down large chunks of Hong Kong’s train network and close schools and shopping malls.
The movement, characterised by its fluidity and unpredictability, has started to coagulate in fixed locations, showing the protesters’ ability to switch tactics.
The protests started against a now-shelved bill to allow extradition to China but have billowed to encompass wider issues such as perceived police brutality and calls for universal suffrage in the former British colony.
The financial hub has been nudged into a recession by the unrelenting turmoil.
A poster circulating on social media called for the “dawn action” to continue on Monday.
“Get up early, directly target the regime, squeeze the economy to increase pressure,” it said.
The education bureau said schools will remain closed again on Monday.
Earlier on Sunday, dozens of government supporters gathered to clear barricades near the university campus — a sign of the divisions slicing through the city.
Many residents are wearied by the sapping protests. Others support the Chinese-backed city government.
Some applauded a Saturday clean-up by Chinese troops from a garrison of the People’s Liberation Army in Kowloon.
The garrison is usually confined to the barracks under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, although it can be deployed at the request of the city’s government to help with public order breakdown or natural disasters.
Hong Kong’s government, which presides over a city that enjoys greater freedoms than the mainland, said it did not ask the PLA for help on Saturday.
The choreographed troop movement “has only compounded the impression that Beijing has simply ignored” Hong Kong’s unique political system, said analyst Dixon Sing.