Scorching heatwave in Bangladesh magnifies fossil fuel woes

A massive heatwave like last year has returned to Bangladesh, causing temperatures to stay around 40C over vast landscapes for about two weeks now, sending power demand for cooling soaring.

Emran Hossain

$ 33 billion already spent in Bangladesh’s energy sector

Electricity is also needed to irrigate rice fields, maintain the right water levels in fisheries and cool off poultry farms where thousands of birds are dying every day, apparently from heat strokes.

People are suffering too, particularly the poor, in both cities and villages, experiencing frequent power cuts while at home after laboring long hours under the blazing sun. At least 25 people died from heatwave or with heatwave symptoms, mostly blue-collar workers, including many farmers, while hundreds of others, mainly elderly and children, were hospitalized with heat-related diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia.

It still looked like just the beginning of a greater crisis, weather scientists warned, since the ongoing heatwave is not retreating anytime soon and similar heatwaves are likely in May and the month thereafter.

An adequate supply of power could have better equipped people to battle the intense heat conditions which scientists said would keep recurring in greater numbers and intensity with time passing because of changing climate.

Bangladesh could easily have minimized the situation had it invested in renewable energy. But the country invested in fossil fuel instead, pursuing the goal of 100 per cent electrification based on imported fuels, despite warnings from energy experts at home and abroad.

After spending $ 33 billion in the power sector and over 24 years, Bangladesh found itself in big trouble for it cannot use half of the installed power generation capacity of over 27,000MW it built due to fuel shortage.

Acute energy crisis in rural areas

‘I lost 11 goats and three sheep because of excessive heat,’ said Solaiman, a cattle farmer at Shiyalkhoa village of Kaliganj, Lalmonirhat.

Shah Ali, a poultry businessman from the same area, saw more than 150 birds die in the heatwave between April 11 and 24.

The Shiyalkhoa village was among many rural areas where power went out six to eight times every day, each spell of power cut lasting an hour or even more.

To save birds from the harsh weather or punishing cold, many poultry traders have installed pipes above their roofs to constantly spray water to cool off the farm which agriculturists said must not be warmer than 35C.

There are ceiling fans inside poultry farms that need constantly running for proper ventilation which too is crucial for maintaining the atmosphere needed for birds to survive, particularly those older than five weeks.

But an acute power crisis is undermining all these efforts.

What can I do when there is no power to turn the fans and run the pump to lift groundwater to spray on the birds or roof?’ wondered Salauddin Bhuiyan Selim, owner of Bhuiyan Agro, a poultry farm in Sonargaon, Narayanganj.

Extreme temperature killed 87 birds in Selim’s poultry farm on April 20, the hottest day Dhaka saw in 64 years with a temperature of 40.6C. There were reports of birds dying in Jashore and Pabna as well, two of the worst affected districts in the heatwave, where day temperatures remained at 40C or above for days.

Newspapers reported about a poultry farm in Jashore losing over 100,000 poultry birds in the heatwave.

‘I believe this summer will put 20,000 poultry traders out of their business, about a fourth of them permanently,’ said Bangladesh Poultry Association president Sumon Hawladar.

Many poultry businessmen cannot afford any more disruption in the business for their production costs skyrocketed following energy price hikes and increases in prices of feed and young birds. 

Fish farmers, particularly in northern Bangladesh, are not in any better situation either for they are failing to maintain the right water levels at their fisheries with the intense heat rapidly drying up water bodies.

Government fisheries officers have advised keeping five to seven feet of water depth in fisheries warning that depleted water levels could dangerously reduce dissolved oxygen levels, giving rise to poisonous gases, potentially threatening fish lives.

However, fish farmers cannot lift enough groundwater to maintain the required water depth in their fisheries because of power cuts. In some areas in Rangpur, up to 10 hours of power cuts were reported in the last week of April.

Productions of protein and crops were set to drop if the overall situation did not improve.

The scariest threat however comes from the heatwave potentially decimating Boro production, the main rice grain, by leaving vast rice fields parched. 

The power situation is rather deteriorating as load shedding soared to near 1,500MW on April 24 with the government advising farmers to irrigate crop fields on their own using diesel-run water pumps.

Rice fields developed cracks as farmers could not irrigate fields while the heatwave swept over them relentlessly. 

The advice given to farmers and official energy figures indicated that the supply of fuel reached its optimum level with little chance of Bangladesh ever completely meeting the power demand. 

Bangladesh is set to suffer for neglecting renewables

The power generation largely stayed between 13,000MW and 14,000MW, far less than the predicted peak demand of 17,500MW. The power supply is hard to improve for Bangladesh cannot fully use any of its fossil fuel capacities because of its rapidly rising debt. The government owes massive amounts to HFO-based power plants, coal-fired power plants and gas-fired power plants. 

About 97 per cent of Bangladesh’s power generation capacity is based on fossil fuels. Gas accounts for 44 per cent of the installed capacity, followed by 22 per cent of the capacity depending on furnace oil, 19 per cent on coal, 10 per cent on import from India, and 2 per cent on diesel. 

Energy experts disfavored such expansion in the power sector saying that reliance on fossil fuel import would render Bangladesh’s economy vulnerable to various shocks such as price fluctuations owed to political unrest or disasters.

Each one of the negative predictions made by energy experts came true after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Russia invaded Ukraine.

The electricity cost has risen by 300 per cent over the last 14 years, though access to reliable, uninterrupted electricity remained missing.

The irony is the power sector for which Bangladesh underwent so much facilitates global warming which spawns stronger heatwaves.

Over the last 14 years, Bangladesh’s carbon dioxide emissions doubled and greenhouse gas emissions increased as well. Localized pollution from burning coal and other development projects has worsened so much that it significantly dimmed the sunlight. 

Nothing, however, has been able to bring Bangladesh to its senses. Bangladesh is still committed and determined not to tread the path of generating low-cost, environment-friendly, reliable electricity. In the Integrated Energy and Power Master Plan, Bangladesh planned to keep relying on gas and coal through 2050. The IEPMP plans to introduce hydrogen energy, ammonia-co-firing and carbon capture technology in the future, which experts described as unproven technologies and would be far too expensive even if they are proven viable for power production. The IEPMP undermines renewable energy potentials. 

It seems Bangladesh is set to suffer. 

Bangladesh Power Development Board’s annual loss quadrupled to $1,072 million last year compared with the year before. Since 2009, the year the incumbent Awami League government assumed power, BPDB’s annual loss increased by 14 times. Over the period, the power generation capacity increased by about five and a half times. But it could not solve the power crisis. It rather aggravated it.

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