12:00 AM, May 15, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 15, 2010

The recent water and power crisis: Is El Niño to be blamed partly?

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Dr. Md. Rashed Chowdhury

LET me start with a classic example of Venezuela--the country officially called the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. This is a tropical country on the northern coast of South America. The republic is a former Spanish colony that won its independence in 1821. Like Bangladesh, Venezuela is in the midst of a genuine power and water crisis. There may not be a clear cut answer to this question “What is causing Venezuela's energy crisis”, and different people provide differing interpretations.
President Hugo Chávez's critics say that the government has neglected the power grid and failed to invest in hydrology systems and aqueducts in order to expand power production and satisfy increased consumption. Also pointing the finger at weather changes, President Chávez said “It's El Niño,” (a periodic phenomenon in which warming in the Pacific gives rise to unusual weather patterns) partly to be blamed for this recent crunch. The El Niño is blamed to have resulted in a lack of rainfall and the cause of water shortages. These shortages in turn have starved Venezuela's hydroelectric dams which provide approximately three quarters of the nation's electricity.
President Hugo Chávez has been in power for more than ten years, during which time he has deflected numerous electoral challenges, a recall effort, a coup d'etat and even an oil lock out. A politically adroit statesman, he has demonstrated enormous staying power throughout all these political crises. Yet, Chávez's leadership was finally threatened by the devastating El Niño-linked drought in recent years, when the government has been forced to undertake conservation measures for water and electricity. The President finally urged citizens to cut back showering time as the country's electric and water supply problems mount. He also passionately encouraged Venezuelans to quell personal consumption by taking shorter showers, saying that wasting electricity or water “is a crime.”
Throughout the Pacific Basin, El Niño is normally linked with extreme weather like droughts and floods. While the recent El Niño has proven enormously dislocating for Venezuela, it's not the first time that the Andean nation has been hit by such weather phenomenon: indeed, during the 1997-98 El Niño the country was struck by drought and the authorities were obliged to ration power.
I have cited the Venezuelan experience as because I see there is a similarity about the nature of problems Bangladesh is facing now. With the El Nino dry spell there is a shortage of water to generate the rated capacity of the power stations. So, the dry spells is seriously affecting both the water and power sectors. We are aware about the importance of electricity and water in a civilized society. In fact, one of the parameters to measure whether the economy of a particular country is moving forward is the amount of electricity that it consumes. The importance of water not merely for human consumption but for industrial use is also admitted.
Power problem in Bangladesh is nothing new and, certainly, even without El Niño Bangladesh has already suffered the severe effects of power shortage. So, there is no question about it! What I want to raise here is that: has the recent El Niño made the problem of power crisis worse? Concerned agencies of Bangladesh should strive to find the answer how much influence the on-going dry spell of El Nino has on the water and power crisis in Bangladesh for which the country is experiencing its worst suffering in recent decades. While further research is needed, climate change could make El Nino more intense and frequent; the public officials in charge of forecasting, planning and constructing new water and power plants should also think about the role of this periodic El Nino/La Nina event in implementing any future projects.

Dr. Rashed Chowdhury is the Principal Research Scientist of the Pacific ENSO Applications Climate Center at the University of Hawaii (USA). He is primarily responsible to develop ENSO-based climate forecasts for the small island countries in the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (Email: rashed@hawaii.edu).

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