WHEN the Board of Investment (BoI) invited me to a dialogue on the State of the Economy, it used a trump card of a huge sell-point we have acquired by virtue of a sizeable success through the recent maritime boundary delimitation along the Bay. It was an irresistible invitation for many in spite of the heavy traffic one had to negotiate to reach the venue at the heart of Motijheel business district.
For, the centerpiece of the interactive session was a presentation on the 'Blue Economy of Bangladesh' by Rear Admiral (Retd) Md. Khurshed Alam MPhil, ndc, psc, Secretary, Maritime Affaires Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our astute protagonist in the international arbitration process.
What is a blue economy? The chief discussant Mrs. Ferdaus Ara Begum, CEO, BUILD, Dhaka, shed light on the question: 'Ultimate aim of a Blue Economy business model is to shift the society from scarcity to abundance "with what we have" (by way of a priceless value addition with extended territorial waters) ... Blue Growth is the long term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole. Seas and oceans are drivers for the Blue Economy.' Obviously, seawater is blue like the sky too, is. By association of thought, the phrase -- 'Sky is the limit' -- can perhaps be invoked to underscore the enormity of prospect of the venture we are hoping to embark on, hopefully, sooner rather than later. It is known for a fact that 'deep seabed resources often contain higher concentration of valuable minerals than their terrestrial alternatives which are becoming stretched.'
Sea mining is more environment-friendly than land mining so that it is part of the green economy in that sense of the term. Yet, to be pragmatic, sea mining is highly technology-intensive and more costly than land mining. Given our expertise level and technological span, seabed mining looks like a distant dream.
At this stage, we must do first things first by way of having staging posts. Firstly, there is a much larger number of islands than have been listed and the list needs updating with the extended territorial waters. These islands including the sizeable accretions to the sea will have to be planted with mangrove forests to solidify the fledgling landmass. In fact, the soil capital of the islands need to be developed with the multiple purpose of accommodating new habitation, creating green belt to resist sea storm and encourage eco-tourism. And then, we use them as springboard for exploratory activities further into the high seas.
Simultaneously, we go back to our seafaring history and replicate some of it in present day terms. Remember that foreign ships had used Mir Kadem in Munshiganj as a port of call. Also, between 15th and 17th centuries we were a recognised player in building sea-going vessels. That seems to be replaying now as we receive orders from developed countries to build them sea-worthy vessels. We have to take it forward from there if we are to save $6 billion as freight charges every year for using foreign carriers to transport our total trade volume worth $65 billion across the globe.
Those are within a doable range but as the solidity of the gains of the arbitration verdict sinks in, we realise the great need for striking strategic partnership with countries in the region experienced in and co-traveler with us as far as rapid exploitation of the sea resources goes.
Now that the areas have been demarcated for Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, there should not be any cause for friction or fierce competition between them. Most likely choice for a strategic partnership would be India first and then Myanmar. 'Under the framework of BIMSTEC and BCIM, all the three countries are members and cooperate with each other,' as pointed out by Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali. Also, we have potential choices in the ASEAN countries to tape in on.
There we need great artuculation, comitment and tenacity India has been exploring hydrocarbons in Saudi Arabia for quite sometime now. What is however exemplary to note is Great Britain's consortium with Norway, Sweden including many private companies to extract North Sea Oil, a massive exploration undertaking in off-shore drilling history.
BoI's Executive Chairman Dr. S. A. Samad raised his expectations saying, 'We are looking for new investment opportunities in the sector.'
It is understood that top IOCs are swerving towards Myanmar as 'their terms and conditions are more acceptable to the IOCs.' Energy Advisor Dr. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury explained away the trend in the following terms: 'Myanmar's intention is to monetise the resources while Bangladesh wants to inject the resources to the economy. We have different objectives.' All this needs elaboration.
Sounding a hopeful note he said Bangladesh would be redesigning its blocks for bidding and revising production-sharing contract accordingly.
These are the big tasks ahead of the government. It is commonsensical to expect though, that a calmer political climate will be conducive to leapfrogging in materialising Blue Economy. The new opportunities should unite a nation confident of its future rather than divide it being caught up in avoidable squabble and despair.
The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.