Bangladesh's economic development & the Bay of Bengal

A ‘blue’, ‘green’, & ‘gray’ kaleidoscope

Imtiaz A. Hussain, Obydullah Marjuk and Asheer Shah | Wednesday, 7 December 2022

Two colliding forces haunt Bangladesh in the early 21st Century. They explain the three colours in the title. Whereas ‘gray’ represents industry and ‘green’ environmental sustainability, the ‘blue’ is the ocean, in Bangladesh’s case its nearest access to the ocean: the Bay of Bengal.
Industrialisation is today’s synonym for being ‘modern’. It institutionalised materialism three centuries ago (interestingly, democracy unfolded in a parallel trajectory, forming an unusual symbiosis). Beforehand, materialism was largely measured through ownership of geographical space (the length, breadth, depth of empires, for instance), bullions amassed (silver or gold primarily), buildings constructed (like palaces, pyramids, temples), and artefacts owned (paintings, scrolls, and so forth). With mass-production, industrialisation required raw materials, wider market-accesses, and converting peasants and farmers into low-waged assembly-line workers. No wonder why, when ‘development’ is measured/mentioned today, economic measurements outweigh educational (intellectual talents/skills), health-related (intelligence, health stature), political (institutions), and social (anthropological and cultural).
‘Development’ expanded globally after World War II, as colonies won independence (and wanted to equal their colonial masters materialistically), sparking a scramble from the 1960s (when we coined terms like developed, developing, less developed, and undeveloped). Concerns about collateral damage were voiced, particularly over the environment (but also health through discernible damages from genetically modified food), politics (election campaigns promising prosperity largely in economic terms), and society (democracy unifying stratified classes, but also stirring scuffles and conflating metropolitans in the process).
We have inherited urgent concerns. Our sustainable goal clashes with industrialisation, but to elevate renewable hopes, we must first dive deep into the muck.
Bangladesh’s Case: Bangladesh is at the forefront of climate-change victims. It cannot but develop because (a) it was born as poor as any country could have been, becoming poverty’s poster-country; (b) that is what Sonar Bangla, the country’s birth catalyst, demands it do; (c) its ready-made-garment (RMG) growth was so phenomenal as to convert a ‘bottomless’ country into one of the highest growth-rate countries globally, for an entire generation (since the 1990s); and (d) Vision 2041 officially seeks a ‘developed country’ by then.
Bangladesh has done what all industrialisation countries have done: push economic buttons first. The Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), established in 1980, chalked out a plan to build 100 export processing zones (EPZs), of which 8 currently function with a total of 456 industrial units as of July 2022: BEPZA exported USD9.5 billion this year, that is, over 30% more than the previous year; invested just under USD100 million this year, thus overtaking the 2014-5 record; while just over half a million workers were employed in July 2022, increasing by 11,884 just in 2022 until then, all according to BEPZA Bulletin, Issue 62 (April-June 2022).
While assembly-lines and factories emphasise physical inputs (the first and second industrial revolutions from the 18th and 19th centuries relied on that), computer development and artificial intelligence supply the needs of the third and fourth industrial revolutions, as inherent in Digital Bangladesh: inputs that are intellectual. With both the physical and intellectual inputs, Bangladesh is well equipped for the industrial-sustainability collision, as both a catalyst and a corrector: unavoidable bugs (pollution, plastic-consumption, urban congestion, ho-hum waste-management) spill over from the former, while the latter carries the solutions; if we actually look for them (software pinpoints the problems that hardware usage introduced over the centuries).
This is the article’s reference to gray, the colour of smoke spewing out of chimneys (we see them in the brick-kilns scattered across the country too), and guzzling out of automobiles, planes, and trains (we see them being released from our buses, motor-bikes and other vehicles). It is an essential part of industrialisation, which also boosts the need for plastics and the growing belief that acquiring cash is more important than modifying problems. The fossil fuels responsible for corroding our blanket of defense against the sun’s heat, that is, the ozone (and thereby melting our glaciers and ice increasingly faster), have been coal and petroleum. The results: more extreme weather than ever before?a serious concern today but set to worsen steadily. In short, with 2022 likely to be the coldest year in the rest of this century, how are we protecting our future generations while enlivening the long-dormant deadly viruses?
What does the gray-green collision entail? Historically, in the vast rural domain where 80+ per cent of our population once lived (in the 1970s), and what drove Rabindranath Tagore and other literary figures to lionise the countryside and its rivers in their works, is home to less than one-third of our population today. In that greenery other groups have moved in, for industrial production, recreation, or innovative farming (perhaps in that order of importance). The most struggling group advocating green today consists of environmentalists, and with them sustainability supporters. The subject of sustainability is not the emerging industrial order, but the planet itself. It is this subset group clashing most with the gray.
To deliver hope to citizens of the eighth largest population in the world, Bangladesh has the unique opportunity to not just dilute the gray while enhancing the economy, but also become a global leader in this respect: since it is new to industrialisation, it can easily restructure its industrialisation along sustainable standards. After all, Bangladesh has been responsible for a mere .04% of global greenhouse gases. Yet while today’s advocates of the green movement in industrialised/developed countries think of sustainability a posteriori, Bangladesh’s wishes to become an a priori sustainability leader. This will depend on how it mixes and matches the gray and the green for posterity.
One way (eventually we may have no other choice), is to look at the blue. For Bangladesh, that is the Bay, including all the rivers flowing into it, rivers of fish and the seeds of vitality (one of the fastest-growing suppliers of protein). They also carry sewage and toxicity. Bangabandhu, our Founding Father, gave us back our Sonar Bangla and alerted us to the magic of the Bay in 1974. We must treat the Bay proactively, as he did, and as our personal backyard.
Drawn from a far larger project, this article merely illustrates the nature of the brewing collision, underscoring why and how we must act more urgently to preserve Mother Nature. Along with the paisas trickling/gushing into our pockets from investments our parents’ made on our education, preservation demands attention too. Three sections explain land problems filling the Bay, sorting out Bay assets from liabilities, and exploring our resource renewability.
Green & Gray Land Spill over into the Blue: A pointed starter is Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 14.1, calling for preventing and significantly reducing “maritime pollution of all kinds including marine debris and litter by 2025.” According to Md. Ashraf Hossain (from the Law Division of the Planning Ministry), that may not be possible. “Sewage-borne pathogens, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metal concentration in water, [and] sediment,” he posited, have a “toxic effect on sea shells and oyster.” How three rivers (Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Karnaphuli) release “untreated sewage, plastic, and industrial waste and effluent from agricultures and aquacultures industries” bred his pessimism. This is not new information, nor how it speaks for at least two very populated countries (Bangladesh and India), which must first discuss corrective measures among themselves. SDG17 promotion of international partnerships feeds that need.
Dhaka University’s Towhida Rashid, Sirajul Hoque, and Sharmin Akter not only identified some of the industries behind this plight (“fertilisers, cement, pulp and paper, food processing, pharmaceuticals, metal, textile, chemical, petroleum, lubricant plants”), but also shrimp cultivation. Though shrimp exports bring USD350 million income annually, it also releases 15 tons of waste every day. Their “hierarchy of heavy metals in sea sediment” begins with iron, goes down through zinc (Zn), nickel (Ni), chromium (Cr), lead (Pb), to cadmium (Cd) tallies with Hossain’s more recent findings that “[l]ead cadmium, iron and copper” in the East Bay were “3027, 3, 19, and 122 times higher than the standard sea water.”
Although urea-release from the shrimp farms is destabilising, it exposes most the need of the hour: regulations. One example of a manicured approach to farming is Dhaka’s Practical Action whose ‘climate-smart intervention’ helped 100,000 coastal residents become resilient through “climate adaptive agriculture, aquaculture and ICT based agro-met services” (Shaikh Mohammad Saleh Rabbi, Business Times, August 2018), and engaged 23,000 climate vulnerable poor farmers, mostly women. If such a start-up is mandated in the 100 BEPZA (Bangladesh Export Promoting Zones Authority) sites (97 have been approved; and 27 are being built), for every industry Bangladesh might be off to an eye-opener start, especially as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened 50 of them on October 26, 2022 (one for each year of the country minus the pandemic). She will lay the foundation-stone of 29 more soon. A bulk of all of these overlook the Bay (as of July 2022): 154 in Chattogram EPZ, 750 in Karnaphuli EPZ, and 29 in Mongla EPZ, employing 177,905; 81,100; and 8,626 workers, respectively, out of a total labour force of 502,365. Building industrial initiatives and units automatically drag the Bay in.
Of the industries already mentioned, the following have EPZ firms: paper (1); agricultural products (2), chemicals (3), metal products (4), and textiles (5). Megaprojects underway supplement EPZ growth. Those facilitating the DC conversion by 2041 are called ‘flagships’: Padma Bridge, Matarbari Deep Sea Port, Payra Deep Sea Port, Dhaka Metrorail Project, Dhaka Elevated Expressway, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Bangabandhu Tunnel (under Karnafuli River). A second string emphasises other bridges (in Bekutia, Kalna, Khulna, Mirpur, and Sitalakhyya); highways (Dhaka-Tangail; Banani-Airport; Dhaka-Rangpur 4-lane; Jashore-Jhenidah 4-lane); and railways (Kamlapur-Agargaon Metrorail; Bhanga-Mawa).
Ultimately, fish-production zones shed crucial light in the Bay-Bangladesh industrialisation relationship. Typically production should be the highest along the coast. If that is not the case, the most important reasons why include shrimp farming and/or increasing salinity. True to expectations, not only Borguna and Chattogram Hill Tracts have the least productive capacities along the coast, but also increasingly saline-filled southern Ganges banks as it enters Bangladesh, with Chuadanga and Magura being the worst affected. On the other hand, climate change aggravates salinity levels, according to a World Bank report. Miscarriage among women, according to the ICDDR, B in Dhaka, depicts what shrimp cultivation may do.
Finally, M.M. Majedul Islam found Bangladesh to be among the world’s top-10 plastic-polluter (Daily Star October 22, 2022), 35 out of 140 Karnaphuli River species have already died (Daily Star, editorial, October 27?), while 40 kilometres of the river’s banks have been hijacked, with 785 tonnes of waste entering every day. That, 60-65 ships also get broken in Chattogram and Khulna each year, releasing lead and zinc (Hossain), shows damage becoming irreversible. In February 2011, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina introduced ship-recycling to modify ship-breaking: its yardage fell from 158 to 45 (Daily Star, October 24, 2022). Still, Bangladesh leads South Asia in dismantling ships: 280 out of 583 in South Asia and 763 globally.
Blue: Producing 6 million tons of fish (4% of the global harvest), the Bay of Bengal has become “an important source of animal protein for nearly 400 million people,” according to M.M. Majedul Islam (Daily Star, August 10, 2019). Not just that, but according to the Director General of Bangladesh Oceanic Research Institute, Sayeed Mahmood Belan Haider, the potential for horseshoe crab production is huge (just 1 crab could fetch lakhs of takas, given a rare ingredient it contains that helps cure diseases, including cancer). He most robustly emphasised how the multiple anti-clockwise sea currents prevent debris deposits in any specific locations. That leaves the growth of micro-plastics as a threat. This threat, he contends, is not just to marine biodiversity and marine health, but also human health.
Given the previous discussion of rivers releasing “sewage-borne pathogens, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metal concentration in water sediment, the 200,000 tons of plastic entering the Bay from Bangladesh” (Islam 2022), and thereby into our food chain through fish consumption, sea currents alone may not protect the health littoral residents. Nor could they prevent a larger chunk of the Bay that is the size of Bangladesh from becoming a Dead Zone. Though this is located in a stretch going east from the Chennai coastline towards Myanmar, its northern part would spell doomsday to Bangladesh’s inhabitants.
At the same time, the Bay has become a zone of possible mineral deposits. Though just less than 10 per cent of our petroleum needs become by-products of local gas condensation, how we control the 90 per cent purchased from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be vital for the DC elevation. Yet they clash with the SDG target of abandoning fossil fuels by 2030. Bangladesh’s increasing gas deposits in the Bay could rescue the country. Domestic gas supplies 2.5 billion cubic feet (BCF) of the 4 billion BCF we need today, but by 2030, though local needs will climb to about 4.5 billion BCF, supply from Bay deposits could help easily catch up.
Particularly heart-warming are BORI’s Blue Economy plans. Divided into 8 short-, 9 medium-, and 9 long-term projects over the 2018-23 time-span, they involve a total, respectively of 310 lakhs, 41,187 crores, and 100 lakhs, Taka. Whereas the short-term projects had finished by the start of the pandemic, they largely assessed the lay-of-the-land: identifying resources, getting into the protective mood, not just with environmental-related artefacts or species but also the atmosphere, while the mid-term projects largely due for completion by next year, focused on stocking the key oceanic dimensions (oceanography, biological composition, geological resources, biodiversity, aqua culture, damage-prone arenas, and so forth). The long-term projects develop the mid-term outcomes into building resource bases along several dimensions, port area information for magnetic and gravity surveys, and developing baseline data.
Cox’s Bazaar tourism can be described through a ‘Tragedy of the commons’ lens popularised by Garrett Hardin in 1968: each individual overuses a common property if given the opportunity to maximise their personal benefits; but if everyone does this, the public property rapidly becomes overused and disrupted. While providing shelter to more than 2 lakh locals and 1,000 NGO staff (for Rohingya refugee camps), Cox’s Bazaar also caters to roughly 1 crore tourists annually. At the end of each day, it must dispose of 145 tonnes of sewage when its municipality sewage treatment capacity can handle only 20 tonnes per day.
Tourism boom has further boosted the growth of unplanned hotels, motels, and resorts. With garbage littering beaches and over-tourism polluting marine life (Faruque 2021), both Cox’s Bazaar and St. Martin’s Island may be silently paying heavily for its attraction. Along with Khulna, Kuakata in the Patuakhali district, Chittagong’s Patenga Beach, they may be among the most visited coastal and marine tourist destinations, earning enviable income, but the visiting crowds leave solid and liquid waste that damage the coast and marine life.
‘Green’ Renewed: Until the Ukranian war, we blissfully lived off our electricity supply. Several households no longer used Instant Power Supply (IPS) and generators since load-shedding evaporated from Dhaka’s central neighborhoods. Unfortunately, with that war the dynamics of electricity supply and load-shedding took a complete U-turn as gas and oil prices soared.
Yet, dependency on limited fossil fuel and gas can be catastrophic. The time has come to go ‘green’ and harness nature’s unlimited energy supply. The world, and significantly Bangladesh, requires a renewable energy revolution.
Renewable energy sources may be unlimited, but they may have peaked in Bangladesh. The country enjoys extreme sunshine, is full of rivers, and boasts the world’s largest beach with an ample supply of wind. In such a geographical location, harnessing renewable energy depends on only technological advancement. According to the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) database, the government sought interest from international companies in 2012 to set up a 100MW power plant to furnish wind power. Yet without corporate interest, the project was scuttled.
The government even sought international companies to set up wind-power plants at Mongla, Inani in Cox’s Bazaar, and Kachua in Chandpur in 2019. Envision Energy’s interest to set up plants at Mongla and Inani, but Kachua, Chandpur, did not find any suitor.
As a Chinese multinational corporation supplying wind turbines and energy management software, and running full-scale since 2009, Envision Energy was the 4th wind turbine supplier in the world in 2020. Its two research centres (in Jiangyin, Shanghai; and Osaka, Japan) and two innovation centers (Silkeborg, Denmark; and Silicon Valley, California), focus on advanced turbine technology, battery-storage, and digital innovation.
How many companies produce wind turbines in Bangladesh? How many corporations in Bangladesh have research and innovation centres? To promote Bangladesh’s access to affordable clean energy and support clean energy entrepreneurship, U.S.AID started a USD17 million clean energy project called Bangladesh Advancing Development Growth through Energy (BADGE).
Previously, the U.S. Embassy had supported the Government of Bangladesh to enhance private sector interactions, energy security, competitive and transparent renewable energy procurement, and institutional ability to integrate economic renewable energy through the Scaling Up Renewable Energy (SURE) program.
The theme of 50 years of US-Bangladesh relations ought to be called CLEAN ENERGY.
The SREDA database shows 213 renewable energy stakeholders in Bangladesh: 33 government organisations, 4 development partners, 173 companies/organisations, 3 associations, 6 research institutes (5 government institutes and 1 council), 5 testing laboratories, 6 exporters, 43 importers, and 23 local manufacturers.
In comparison to Envision Energy, none of the 173 renewable energy companies have their own specialised research or innovation center. The result: 43 Bangladeshi companies import supplies, only 6 export them.
The Government of Bangladesh has dynamic renewable energy targets to meet global commitments, which external U.S. support can augment. Limited data, research, and technology remain the obstacles. Furthermore, with corporations not investing in research, both innovations and developments unfold at a snail’s pace.
The leading corporations in the energy sector can maximise profits in this industry globally, once they acquire the data through research, leading to technological advancement. Envision Energy is one of the market leaders today due to its investment in research, development, and innovation centers.
Research, development, and innovation are not simply the government’s responsibility, but more of corporations. They are the ones capable of making profits from it.
Bangladesh needs renewable energy entrepreneurs. Companies should finance research based on their business model, innovate ideas and technology, and later achieve scalability & affordability. For instance, the current barrier to Bangladesh’s solar power industry is the scarcity of land in the country. In cities, solar panels are installed on the rooftops. Is it possible to install solar panels on the sides of high storied buildings to use maximum sunlight?
Many such questions open up. We need to furnish answers too. Now is our only time.

Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor, Department of Global Studies & Governance (GSG)
Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB); [email protected]
Obydullah Marjuk is Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Science & Humanities
Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB),
Asheer Shah is Senior Lecturer , Department of Global Studies & Governance (GSG),
& Project Specialist, Center for Bay of Bengal Studies, Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).