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     Volume 7 Issue 26 | June 27, 2008 |

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Think Alternatives, Fast!

Samya Kullab

One can find Dr. Munir Uzzaman between the hours of 4 to 8 pm receiving the sixty to eighty people that turn up each day to his small physiotherapy clinic in Dhanmondi. Seeking treatment for their bodily aches and pains Dr. Uzzaman's walk-in clinic is almost a daily ritual for some of his patients.

“I have a recurring pain right here", says S. Rahman pointing to her knee. "I come everyday for my treatment and the pain is always gone.” She exclaims throwing her hands into the air. This wild gesture startles the nurse as she prepares the timer on the electric-powered apparatus, largely responsible for Rahman's daily relief.

Suddenly there is a blackout. Though this occurrence is nothing new to the citizens of Dhaka, it is always a nuisance when normal activities are rudely interrupted by frequent power failure. The power is out and that means no physiotherapy today as the clinic does not have a generator.

“This is not good for business” says the doctor, adding, “And it's not good for the patients.”

If one were to venture to Dhaka University, one would most likely find Saif, enrolled in Information Technology, lounging about with his friends in the student centre. On this particular day, Saad is sitting next to him, concerned about his smoking habit.

“Every time, when I study and the lights go off, I go outside and have one of these,” he says, holding up a cigarette. “It's starting to become a habit.”

When asked whether they felt their grades had suffered because of frequent power outages, there was collective agreement within the group. “Some months, it becomes too hot to concentrate without the fan or the AC,” says Saad. “So when there is no power, I have to try really hard to focus.”

Sharing this seemingly insurmountable quandary both Dr. Munir Uzzaman and Saif have but one question lingering in their minds. Why is this happening?

The doctor can't help but grin when asked whether he blames anyone for the present crisis. “It's the government's responsibility” he says, “How can private citizens take care of such a thing?” Though he admits purchasing generators is an option available to the public to alleviate the damages caused by such problems, he does not feel it is a feasible long-term solution.

Along the same lines, Saif points his finger at bureaucracy as the main source of his country's malcontents. “I have hope that the government will take care of this,” he says.

A few days later, Professor Mohammed Tamim, Special Assistant to the Chief Advisor on Power and Energy makes his way to the podium to address a seminar prepared by the Forum for Energy Reporters Bangladesh. As if attempting to counter the charges placed upon the government by disillusioned citizens like the Dhanmondi physician and university student, Tamim stated, “It is not possible for the government alone to tackle the situation.”

The energy crises in Bangladesh can be understood simply as a gap between the energy supplied by producers in the power sector with the energy needed by consumers. Presently this deficit stands somewhere between 1500- 2000 MW. If circumstances progress in this pattern the country energy reserves will be exhausted as early as 2015.

Bangladesh maintains 3.6 GW of electrical generation capacity. According to a study conducted by the Energy Information Administration this only provides 18 percent of Bangladeshi citizens with access to electricity with the majority of those with access residing in urban areas. As a result of this distribution the country maintains one of the lowest per capita energy consumption in the world. So where is this overwhelming demand coming from?

“In Bangladesh, the agriculture sector can't take anymore labour forces,” says Dr. Ainun Nishat, from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Therefore they have to be accommodated in the industry sector.” As this transition of labour takes place, industrial expansion is sure to occur and it is here that the energy problem presents itself as the chief impediment.

“The deficit will only increase because the economy is growing fast,” he explains.

In addition to rapid industrialisation scholars and practitioners both point to additional factors exacerbating the present crisis. Highest among these causes is Bangladesh's reliance on natural gas as her main commercial energy resource and the alleged politicisation of the power sector.

In a 2003 study, South Asia's commercial energy mix comprised of 44 percent to coal, 35 percent to petrol, 15 percent to natural gas and 6 percent to hydroelectricity. Compared to regional averages, Bangladesh exhibits a dangerous dependence on natural gas which consists of 67 percent of her commercial energy intake. Natural gas is, though considered to be a cleaner non-renewable resource, more costly to develop and implement. Moreover the option of importing natural gas is also an expensive undertaking as success often hinges on the construction of infrastructure to transport the resource from place to place.

Coal is deemed to be a cheaper and more effectual alternative. Bangladesh has consumed little coal in the past and is believed to possess small reserves in Barapukuna and Khalashpir. Future research and development enterprises to locate more coal reserves are encouraged by experts. The US Geological Survey estimates that Bangladesh contains 32.1 Tcf (trillion cubic feet) in “undiscovered reserves”. In light of these findings a resuscitation of BAPEX, the nation's foremost syndicate in energy exploration, is required.

In the future, some experts suggest, transferring to coal production is not enough. Bangladesh's commercial energy resources should incorporate a diverse array of non-renewable resources like wind and solar energy as well as nuclear energy in the long run.

Such a proposal is not without vehement protestation from experts who think otherwise, like Dr. Nishat, “There is talk of solar and wind energy, but what people fail to realise is that these only produce 1-2 KW. We need big commercial energy plants to produce upwards of 1000MW.” He added, “We can't solve Megawatt problems with Kilowatt solutions.”

Hydroelectricity is another option, perhaps the only matter that can produce an agreement between concerned environmentalists and industrialists. Addressing a dialogue titled “Prospects of the Rivers of the Greater Himalayas” on June 16 2008, Sajjadur Rasheed, professor university of Dhaka, Geography department warned, “There is so much talk of coal, but it won't last beyond 2030.” He suggested Bangladesh take advantage of the copious hydropower potential not yet harnessed by Bhutan, Nepal and Northeast India through regional trade.

Criticism for the present crisis has been directed at administration, this is not without warrant, as Prof. Tamim himself recently criticised the government's heavy involvement in the energy sector. For years, the government has been subsidising electricity rates and as a result state electricity companies are faced with the ordeal of paying Independent Power Producers (IPP's) their asking price for power, while providing lower prices for local consumers. The International Monetary Fund and The World Bank have long been encouraging Bangladesh to liberalise the energy sector by opening it up to private partners and market forces.

In the past bureaucratic barriers, as well as underdeveloped regulatory policies have lead to construction delays and foreign investor disenchantment. Many IPP projects have been either delayed or cancelled due to these factors.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nishat's main criticism of the government's response to the crisis concerns the construction of power plants that would only produce between 20-50 MW of energy. He describes these ventures as “utterly inadequate”.

In his presentation, Tamim explained that the energy problem is not an issue confined to national borders, rather he stressed that it is a global phenomenon. Seen in a global context, the high price of oil has become a ubiquitous issue. Developing countries often have the most to lose. Industrial countries like in the West and Japan have some room to maneuvre in their economies, to curb the consumer or shift investments from sector to sector to assuage difficulties. Most developing countries cannot enjoy the leeway that comes with a flexible economy. As most people live below the poverty line, asking, say, a farmer to change his consumer preferences is the same as asking him to starve.

In the last few years however, the region of South Asia as a whole has taken it upon herself to diversify conventional energy supplies, promote foreign investment, improve energy security, reform and privatise energy sectors and expand regional energy trade. For example, a month ago the Hindu Business Line reported that a pan-South Asian electricity ring was in the works, with India taking the lead, hydro projects have been installed in Bhutan as well as Nepal, an undersea link was being negotiated with Sri Lanka and Myanmar is also in the negotiating phase.

The question remains: What about Bangladesh?
David R. C. Grey, Senior Water Advisor from the World Bank, observed in a recent seminar organised by the Government of Bangladesh on Monday, “Regional fragmentation is quite high, there is remarkable little trade between the countries of South Asia.” He stressed South Asia's energy and environment problems do not have to be a “zero sum game” between countries. Rather, regional cooperation can reduce costs. Bangladesh should open up diplomatic lines with its neighbours to work together to tackle energy issues, and its looming counterpart, climate change.

When the National Energy Policy was drafted in 1995, it was done so keeping in mind that energy is a main constituent of economic growth which directly and indirectly provides the means to achieve universal education, empowerment of women, improvements in the healthcare and sustainable development. In this sense, Bangladeshis stand to lose everything if the energy sector is not restored to full capacity.

Back in the university, Saif props up a book and starts to read. He occasionally will underline certain passages with a ballpoint pen. Dr. Uzzaman meanwhile, directs a patient, who has suffered a neck injury, to carefully shift his head side to side. He monitors these movements with utmost care. They, like the rest of Bangladesh are holding on, carrying out their day-to-day tasks in the best way they can given the constant disruptions in the power supply.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008