Water, energy and crisis in Bangladesh

Water, energy and crisis in Bangladesh

How water and electricity scarcity impacts on life and politics. Plus a brief look at the ongoing governmental crisis.

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The administration of most essential public utilities specially water and electricity is in serious jeopardy in the capital [Dhaka], causing untold suffering to the city dwellers.
The erratic power supply leads to disruption to smooth water supply to the city dwellers who are reeling from power and water crisis during the ongoing dry season.
In the capital, people are suffering serious waters crisis due to frequent load shedding, drastic fall in ground water level, insufficient water treatment plants and deep tube wells and the situation is unlikely to improve in coming days unless the government comes up with quick solution.
“The situation has started aggravating. If more water treatment plants are not installed, the city people will face severe water shortage,” an official of Dhaka WASA said.
The official said during the five-year rule of immediate past BNP-Jamaat government, no effort was made to improve this sector
The WASA supplies about 160 crore litres of water every day against the demand for over 220 crore litres in the capital and Narayanganj town. As 88 per cent of water is pumped out through 444 deep tube wells from the underground, the water level is falling drastically.
Besides, the deep tube wells remain out of order and the condition of water treatment plant at Pagla is not satisfactory.
Moreover, severe power crisis has been gripping the country because of shortfall of 2000 to 2500 megawat (mw). The country generated around 3500 mw electricity against the official estimated demand for 4200 mw, according to PDB
Frequent loadshedding is also disrupting the normal activities and hampering industrial production. (Bangladesh Today, 5 May 2007)

Water scarcity
As Bangladesh now experiences a heatwave, a diarrhoea outbreak occurs. These regular outbreaks mainly affect children and are caused by eating rotten food and drinking polluted water; they escalate in summer when drinking water is in short supply, forcing people to use contaminated sources.

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The ongoing intense summer heat is causing various illnesses like heatstroke, dehydration, diarrhoea, and pneumonia, hospital sources said. Heatstroke and dehydration have turned out to be the most prevalent heat-related diseases across the country, affecting thousands of people everyday, especially the children, day-labourers, rickshaw-pullers, and the elderly. (New Age, May 5th 2007)

Water supply is a growing crisis in Bangladesh (and many other places). The 1950s 'Green Revolution' funded by Western aid doubled the crop production of Asia, with the help of chemical fertilisers, but at the expense of using 3 times as much water; most of which came from tapping into groundwater sources via electric pumps (consequently this groundwater is now polluted by chemical fertilisers). this is completely unsustainable, and in the long term causes the drying up of river beds and other environmental effects. As farmers have become dependent on village pumps for crop irrigation, they are also dependent on the irregular electricity supply to deliver the water to the fields. This is another ongoing source of conflict in Bangladesh between the state and the poor, with frequent attacks on electricity offices occurring.

Bangladesh may find itself increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place - either not enough water or too much. Its geographical location makes it particularly vulnerable to flooding from rising sea levels due to global warming. While the country struggles with providing sufficient water supplies, lower rainfalls caused by rising temperatures only add to the supply problems. This is one of the Catch 22s/contradictions for rapidly expanding Asian economies and others - their industrial growth encourages global warming that undermines the conditions for continued expansion. In Bangladesh the problems are only more immediate and acute. A recently published UN report states;

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"World water reserves are drying up fast and booming populations, pollution and global warming will combine to cut the average person's water supply by a third in the next 20 years, the United Nations says.
"About 20 percent of the world's population does not have access to safe drinking water, which we take for granted," said Gordon Young, director of the World Water Assessment Programme at UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency, which compiled the report.
"There is not sufficient water for adequate sanitation and hygiene for about 40 percent of the world's population" .... Water supplies per capita have fallen dramatically since 1970 and are set to continue declining, the report found.
The poor remained the worst affected, with half the population in developing countries exposed to water sources polluted by sewage or industrial waste."(7 May 07 - http://www.bangladeshinfo.com/news/special17.php)


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Coal and electricity
Energy supply is a major problem for all classes in Bangladesh. The electricity infrastructure is old and badly maintained, breaks down frequently and is inadequate to meet the demand. Power cuts are frequent, many areas are only supplied for a few hours a day. Some areas have no power for days at a time when a local generator fails. For the ruling class, it impedes productivity, forcing shutdowns of workplaces when supply fails. For workers, it means loss of income due to these unpaid stoppages. For the wider society, air conditioning stops and makes crowded urban areas even more unbearable in hot weather. Lack of refrigeration encourages traders to regularly doctor food with dangerous cheap preservatives such as formaldehyde. Water supplies are also affected, as much of it is dependent on electric pumps extracting groundwater supplies, both for domestic use and for farm irrigation.

The lack of regular electricity has severely affected industrial output, particularly in the jute mills, the country's second largest industry after the garment sector. Loss-making mills, whose management partly blame lack of power supply for unprofitability, have withheld wages for months at a time. This has sparked strikes and violent clashes.

Bangladesh has considerable coal deposits, but extraction has many pitfalls (pun intended). Only recently (April 26th) a British mine ventilation expert was overcome by high temperature and humidity in Barapukuria coal mine at a depth of 450 metres and died. The geological and climatic conditions of the country make mining a difficult and dangerous task. As Badrul Imam put it;

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The following points highlight the issues that matter most while considering mining prospects and problems in Bangladesh.
1) What makes coal mining in Bangladesh much more difficult compared to its counterpart across the border in West Bengal in India is the presence of a thick (about 100 meter), loose, water-bearing sandy layer (aquifer) above the coal deposit.
a) In the case of Barapukuria underground mine, this water-bearing layer poses problems of shaft sinking as well as water flooding. In 1997, the mine was totally flooded with water from this layer, for which mine construction work was suspended for a year.
b) In case of an open-pit mine this water layer will fill the mine pit if the water is not continuously pumped out throughout the period of mining. Such long-term pumping will lower the groundwater table in the surrounding land mass and habitat, and desertification may set in.

2) a) In the Barapukuria underground mine high heat flow in certain areas (southern part) raised the temperature in the tunnels very high. In addition, high rate of water discharge from quarried coal in the above situation makes the environment excessively humid. This gives a perfect recipe for heat stroke and suffocation, most likely faced by the two British experts, one of whom died on April 26. The working condition in such hot and humid environment is often inhumane.
A second problem in Barapukuria is poisonous CO gas emission due to spontaneous combustion....

Other problems encountered are the risk of roof fall, methane gas explosion and subsidence affecting buildings, fields and roads on the surface, leading to compensation claims.

Open cast mines have their own problems; "during the monsoon season, torrential rain may cause large scale land slide related to pit slope instability. This, along with water logging problem would render coal mining almost impossible."

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....In case of an open-pit mine eviction, resettlement of a very large number of people is essential. The amount of loss of cultivable land is very high as well. The population density in Bangladesh is about 1000 per sq.km. compared to 350 in India, or less than 10 in Australia where large scale open-pit mines operate. This is probably the most important point raised by the opponents of open-pit mine in Bangladesh.

Conclusion: The above point to the constraints of coal mining in Bangladesh, irrespective of the mining method adopted -- underground or open-pit. The lesson is that one cannot be too aggressive in mining coal in Bangladesh because of the difficult geological setting, environmental effects and large scale social (resettlement) problems. One has to be cautious and conservative, rather slow and steady in extracting coal from under this soil. The national coal policy which is about to be announced shortly is reportedly contemplating to produce coal at a rate 20 million tons a year within 10 years, and 40 million tons per year within 20 years. This requires more than one large scale open-pit mine. Such a plan may definitely be referred to as aggressive. (Constraints of coal mining - Badrul Imam; Daily Star - May 5th 2007)

When the British company Asia Energy attempted to begin open cast mining last year at Phulbari, it provoked a local insurrection of those people the mining would have displaced (see previous report here). 5 people were killed by cops in clashes. 30,000 people then seized control of the town as security forces withdrew. Asia Energy's offices were trashed and the government was forced to cancel the mining project. But it is now being reconsidered and there may be attempts to force its implementation during the present state of emergency brought in by the military-dominated caretaker government. In the most densely populated predominantly agricultural country in the world, all land use is precious to the poor, adding to the difficulties of any mining proposals. New proposals have included a suggestion of offshore gas extraction in the Bay of Bengal and the possibility of joint Bangladeshi/Indian/Nepalese exploration of hydro-electric potential of the Himalayan water system. There are vague ideas of developing nuclear power in the country, but problems of 'failing state' political instability and a related potential terrorist threat may make attracting private investment difficult.

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The politics of energy

Increased industrial profitability may be a motivation to put greater effort into resolving the energy crisis, but the larger political situation must first be resolved. The lack of adequate energy infrastructure severely affects both quality of life for the poor and capital accumulation for the rich industrialists. In contrast, government officials have found the energy question highly profitable. The inadequacies of energy supply are a direct result of the corruption and short term greed of all previous governments. Every energy project has had funding and progress dissipated by institutional corruption and pilfering of funds at every level of government and business.

The energy infrastructure crisis neatly illustrates one of the main aspects of the present political conflict in Bangladesh. The state bureaucrats' domination of politics and economic (dis)organisation is restricting the growth of the economy, becoming a 'fetter on the forces of production'; this growth is represented at present largely by the quickly expanding garment industry. The culture of kickbacks, bribes, unproductive retainers and parasitical officialdom must be confronted and overcome before the conditions for a stable modern industrial economy can be created.

The other main factor is that a young working class has been created by the fast industrial expansion. The present state of emergency has only achieved, at best, a short temporary drop in workers' combativity. Strikes and agitation are now growing once again. The ban on all political organising has actually encouraged the already strong organising autonomy of the the Bangladeshi proletariat; unions are banned from functioning or meeting, so cannot play their mediating role as sellers and negotiators of labour. At present, all strikes are officially wildcats.

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The political vacuum...
The caretaker government has apparently backed down on its banishment into exile of the country's two main party leaders, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina; this is presumably in response to diplomatic pressure from the US, UK and UN. It is now believed by some that the military stepped in to resolve the unstable political stalemate due to pressure from the United Nations: "Events leading up to the emergency are widely seen as having been orchestrated by the military, which acted after the UN threatened it with the loss of its lucrative and prestigious peacekeeping duties if flawed elections went ahead.
The day after the emergency was declared, former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was installed as head of a new caretaker government.
" (Bangladeshinfo.com, May 6 2007)

But it has proved hard to find anyone willing to step longterm into the bear-pit that is the Bangladeshi political arena. The recent "Nobel peace prize winner and microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus" (who advocated a small-loans system to encourage entrepeneurship among the poor) "announced last Thursday that lack of support had forced him to pull out of a plan to create a new corruption-free political party." So without any credible new opposition to the dominance of the established rivalry of the Bangladeshi National Party and Awami League, perhaps the foreign powers now prefer the devil they know to a dangerous political vacuum.

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...leftist intellectual and commentator Badruddin Omar.... said he believed the powers behind the military-backed interim government also intended to try to form a political party. But he warned that they too would find it difficult to draw support away from the two main parties in the deeply politically polarised country. "Yunus thought that it would be easy but found that it was not. The present government also thinks it can form a party," he added. He warned that the government could lose the popularity generated by its corruption crackdown on the political elite.
"They are starting to become unpopular because they have been unable to control prices. They are doing some good things but also some unpopular things such as driving hawkers off the streets and letting small businessmen get caught up in the demolition drives [anti-corruption purges] against big criminals," he said.


...step forward the unmediated class struggle?

The class struggle is growing again; more strikes in the jute mills and in the garment factories, in both cases mainly over unpaid back wages;
on the afternoon of Saturday 5th May; in the Uttara area of the capital, Dhaka, hundreds of workers from the Butic Limited sweater factory gathered in front of the factory demanding of payment of two-month's wage arrears. They also barricaded the nearby highway during the demonstration. They then marched towards the local bus station and damaged 12 vehicles on the way. Fights with the police began, with workers resisting baton charges with volleys of bricks. The two sides chased each other for an hour until a large contingent of riot police and troops arrived and brought the situation under control. 20 people were injured, including 4 cops.

Thursday 3rd May; at Gazipur in the north-west, workers from Hasin Sweater Factory at Sripur went on strike and staged a demonstration protesting against physical assault of fellow workers by factory officials. The workers had been demanding payment of arrears and guarantee of weekend breaks for the previous two days. After an argument between workers and management developed into a physical confrontation on the Wednesday evening, workers arriving on Thursday morning heard about the incident and walked out in solidarity. They then began their demonstration outside the factory. Police were called to restore control and eventually the workers returned to work after assurances "of a proper solution to the strife." (New Age, May 4 2007)

Thursday 3rd May; at Khulna district in the south-west, over 100 people in Batiaghata upazila attacked the offices of the local rural electrification board (REB) demanding a regular electricity supply. People from 3 local villages gathered to launch the attack after being without any supply for almost 3 weeks due to a transformer breakdown. The demonstrators, many armed with sticks, attacked the offices with volleys of rocks. The REB offices were being guarded by 'Ansars', a kind of rural National Guard (i.e. a lightly armed auxiliary force that assists the police in maintaining law and order). 10 villagers were injured when Ansars replied with baton-charges.

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"Meanwhile, a home ministry meeting chaired by the law adviser, Mainul Hosein, on Saturday identified at least 69 garment factories and jute mills as in a vulnerable condition which might lead to labour unrest anytime, meeting sources said.
Many garment factory owners are not paying wages as per the recent tripartite agreement [brokered last year between government, employers and unions], fuelling labour unrest, the home secretary, Abdul Karim, told reporters after the meeting.
He said the authorities concerned were asked to ensure that no violent incident occur at the factories and mills." (New Age, May 6 2007)

All the above incidents are entirely typical of what has been regularly occurring on a growing scale for several years now across Bangladesh. Already, during the mass struggles in Phulbari last year against the proposed open-cast mine project, there was a nationwide general strike in solidarity with the local insurrection and to honour the 5 people killed by security forces. If/when these struggles and demands express a greater need to converge and co-ordinate we will see a further advance of possibilities.