Millennium Post

Bangladesh’s power dilemma

Bangladesh’s power  dilemma
A major controversy has erupted in Bangladesh about the proposed joint venture power station in the southwest region, close to the Sunderbans.

The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) of India and the Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB) recently finalised an agreement to build a 1,320 megawatt coal-based power station, to meet the country’s growing energy needs. It would be located in Southwest Bangladesh. In recent years, Bangladesh has been facing a crippling power shortage, which hits its industrial production very hard. The daily shortfall rises to over 500 megawatts during peak hours.

Ideally Bangladesh needs around 6,500 megawatts, but supply rarely exceeds 5,200. Naturally it has been a priority with policy-makers to increase power generation to the extent possible. Only days ago, an agreement was signed with Russia for the building on a priority basis of nuclear power stations, to produce at least 1,000 megawatts daily. The estimated project cost was $2 billion. Not to take chances, the government has also finalised a major $1.5 billion deal with India’s NTPC for the construction of the coal-based power station, within the next 4/5 years. It would be a joint venture on a 50:50 basis and the estimated production would meet at least 20 per cent of the country’s total requirements.

It has been proposed that 'clean' coal from India which would not result in too much pollution would be used. However, use of coal itself is being opposed by local NGOs, environmentalists and others. The sulphur content of most Indian coal varieties, they point out, is rather high.

Coal-based power plants need much water for cooling. For this, it has been proposed that water from the local Poshur river be used. Environmentalists point out that since the river flows into the Sundarbans, it would significantly reduce the fresh water flow into the mangroves forest. This would naturally result in an increased salinity in the Sundarbans, as sea water would rush in, leading to more soil erosion.

It was common knowledge that coal-based power plants usually resulted in a massive pollution and degradation of nearby air, water and soil. Civil rights groups oppose the location of the plant, at a site only 20 kilometres from the Sundarbans, which is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) sanctioned world heritage site.

The long term effects of such pollution, they argue, could well undermine the steady and massive efforts made by the Bangladesh government and the coastal people themselves with some international assistance, to protect the ecologically threatened mangrove forest. It acts as an effective natural buffer, protecting communities and the land from the worst of the most powerful cyclones and hurricanes that occur in the region.

Both PDB and NTPC sources have denied such doomsday scenarios painted by environmentalists. As of now, opinion in Bangladesh remains divided. Significantly, there seems to be nothing inherently anti-Indian about the protests so far, unlike what used to happen under Khaleda Zia as prime minister of Bangladesh. It is also frankly admitted that more power is needed urgently if Bangladesh’s economy is to grow and any technical assistance and know-how from the bigger neighbour is welcome.

It remains to be seen if during the days ahead, both countries decide to choose a new site for the proposed plant.
Ashis Biswas

Ashis Biswas

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