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Regional Cooperation needed

On the 1st of November 2014, Bangladesh suffered an electricity blackout that lasted 10 hours, making it one of the worst power failures in the country’s history. Although the current government has made significant improvements in the generation of electricity in recent years, which has increased from 4,130 MW in 2007 to 8,525 MW in 2013 , this was the fourth blackout and load shedding is still a reality with electricity shortages of up to 1000 MW in the peak summer season.

However, the blackout in November is particularly significant due to initial reports stating that the source of the power outage was a glitch in the 500 MW India-Bangladesh electricity transmission line between Bheramara and Baharampur, which subsequently had a cascading effect on the entire system causing all power plants to shut down. Although the exact cause of the blackout is still being investigated, most reports suggest that some technical issues regarding the bilateral transmission line had exposed severe vulnerabilities in Bangladesh’s power system.

A significant issue that has not been adequately highlighted by the media and most analysts is that this blackout has implications for regional cooperation on energy in South Asia in general and between Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Nepal in particular, as poor energy infrastructure is an issue that affects all countries in the region.

Therefore, as government officials and analysts in Bangladesh reiterate the importance of upgrading infrastructure in response to the blackout, the policymakers of all South Asian countries should recognize the fact that the undertaking of regional energy cooperation implies that each country will have a vested interest in the energy infrastructure of the neighboring state, as interdependence on energy will essentially mean dependence on the partner country’s’ infrastructure. It is with this understanding that the countries of the region should emphasize on a collective approach to the development of domestic and cross border energy infrastructure.

Regional Cooperation on Energy Infrastructure

In addition to political and security issues, one of the key impediments to regional energy cooperation that has been highlighted by the power outage in Bangladesh is the lack of adequate energy infrastructure in all eight countries of South Asia. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2035, India’s electricity sector will need 1.8 trillion in investment, of which 42% has to be dedicated to transmission and distribution.5 Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan all have varying levels of vulnerabilities in their energy infrastructure, with investment of 6 billion, 1.2 billion and 3.3 billion required to enable these countries to undertake cross border energy cooperation.6 Lack of infrastructure as well as the inadequacy of current systems as impediments to regional energy cooperation have been highlighted by a number of academics such as Ebinger (2011)7 , Lama (2000; 2007)8 , Pandian (2002)9 , Lahiri-Dutt (2006)10 , and also in studies by international institutions such as the WB (2008), ADB (2013) and SAARC (2010). To overcome this issue, a SAARC Energy Trade Study has recommended cooperation among member countries to optimize investments for infrastructure development.

The development of energy infrastructure is inherently linked to the success of multilateral energy projects. This reality requires the joint development of electricity transmission lines, transformers, technology and most importantly, a technically and operationally capable manpower. Although there has been progress in the field of technical capacity building and advocacy on the need to harmonize markets, policies and legislation, particularly through the work of projects such as the South Asian Regional Initiative for Energy Integration (SARI/EI), there is still not a recognition, at the policy and academic level, of the vested interest that each country has in the development of the energy infrastructure of its neighbours. This of course, is quite understandable, given the conflict-prone nature of the subcontinent and the inward-looking, nationalistic policies that have dominated for decades.

However, as the countries of the region slowly overcome the myopia of bilateralism to take the difficult but necessary path towards multilateral energy cooperation, there needs to be an appreciation, at the highest political level, to draw out a plan for the collective development of energy infrastructure and manpower in South Asia.

As the vision of the SAARC Electricity Grid gradually takes shape, within the broad plan of creating an interdependent power pool, facilitated by a smart grid that reduces inefficiency and transmission and distribution losses, South Asian nations must also collectively seek financial and technical assistance to upgrade domestic infrastructure. The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development have all undertaken projects to enhance energy security in individual counties in South Asia and have also assisted in facilitating bilateral cooperation. One issue that may compliment this process is open communication between India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan about projects that they feel is important in facilitating multilateral cooperation and ensuring that domestic donor-financed projects in individual countries are technically and operationally interlinked to the broader goal of regional energy cooperation.

Regional collaboration on developing domestic infrastructure is therefore the key in ensuring that the interdependence brought about by transnational energy projects do not make counties vulnerable to disruptions but enhance the collective energy security of the region.

Conclusion

Despite the negative impact on businesses and individuals, two recent political statements, one at the national and the other at the regional level have revealed the far sightedness of the political leadership in conceptualizing energy interdependence between South Asian countries.

Firstly, the current government in Bangladesh has shown pragmatism in seeing the opportunity the power outage has provided to revaluate the adequacy of the country’s energy infrastructure to undertake cross border cooperation. This has been made apparent in a statement by Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the Prime Minister’s energy advisor: “It (the blackout) has come as a blessing in disguise for us, as it has created the scope to adopt preventive measures for any such future incidents, since we are going to take up many projects that would depend on cross-border connections.”

Secondly, Piyush Goyal, India’s Minister of State with Independent Charge for Power Coal and Renewable Energy at the recently concluded SAARC Energy Ministers meeting stated “Rivers can flow only in one direction, but power can flow in the direction of our choice! I dream of a seamless SAARC power grid within the next few years. For example : Hydroelectric power generated in North East India could be transported via Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, on to Afghanistan or offshore wind projects could be set up in Sri Lanka’s coastal borders to power Pakistan or Nepal. The possibilities are limitless!”

Within the achievable but difficult goal of a regional electricity grid and the realities propounded by a power blackout, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan must come together to explore the means of upgrading domestic infrastructure, construct cross border transmission lines and develop human resources. A term that has become embedded in developmental discourse is the need to ‘act locally and think globally’. When it comes to the 1st of November 2014 power blackout in Bangladesh, one hopes that the repercussions on policymaking circles in South Asia would be that the leaders of the region can bring upon themselves the responsibility to act nationally as well as regionally.

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