Bangladesh suffers long power cuts amid worst heatwave in decades

Frequent power cuts due to fuel shortages worsen the misery of residents as searing heat forces schools to close and disrupts lives.

Bangladesh heatwave
A rickshaw puller quenches his thirst with a juice during the heatwave in Dhaka [Munir uz Zaman/AFP]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Abdur Rahman nearly fainted while pulling his rickshaw under the scorching sun in Bangladesh’s capital city. “It is not possible to continue doing this in such weather,” he told Al Jazeera.

For the last few weeks, the slum in Dhaka where Rahman lives has hardly had any electricity at night.

“After a hard, laborious day, I used to get some sleep. Now my sleeps are disrupted without a fan. I wake up many times, drenched in sweat,” he said.

A crippling power crisis has added to the misery of the Bangladeshis as they reel under the country’s longest heatwave in decades.

Tens of thousands of primary and secondary schools have been shut down by the government this week as temperatures surged to more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Dhaka. Other cities such as Rangpur recorded a high of 41 degrees Celsius – the highest there since 1958.

Bangladesh heatwave
Children cool off in the Buriganga River in Dhaka [Munir uz Zaman/AFP]

Officials at the Bangladesh Meteorological Department said they had not seen such a prolonged heatwave since the country’s independence in 1971.

Earlier this week, operations at Bangladesh’s biggest power plant were suspended as the government is unable to import fuel due to a decline in foreign exchange reserves and the depreciating value of the Bangladeshi taka which depreciated about 25 percent against the US dollar last year.

Freelance graphic designer Julfiqar Ali decided to move from Dhaka to Rangpur in northern Bangladesh four years ago not just to avoid the skyrocketing living costs in the capital but also with an urge to get back to the relative tranquillity of his sleepy hometown.

“I work online and take work orders mostly from the United States and European clients. So it doesn’t really matter from where I work as long as I have a stable electricity and internet,” Ali told Al Jazeera. “And Rangpur had both, so it was a no-brainer for me to move there from Dhaka.”

However, for the past few months, Ali has been ruing his decision. Electricity in Rangpur is so unstable he has missed deadlines for many of his projects.

“Electricity doesn’t stay at a stretch even for two to three hours, and when power cut happens, it lingers on. Overall, we are getting at most eight to nine hours of electricity a day. I simply can’t work in this situation,” Ali told Al Jazeera.

Bangladesh power crisis
A mobile phone salesmen works in the dark at a shopping mall in Dhaka [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

No immediate respite

Officials say the power crisis is likely to linger and could even worsen due to the financial crisis.

According to the Bangladesh Bank, the country’s forex stockpile has gone below $30bn for the first time in seven years. It was $46bn a year ago.

The closure of the 1320 MW Payra power plant, the country’s largest, due to a shortage of coal has only compounded the crisis.

While the government assured the plant will be operational by the end of this month, a top official at its operating company, the North-West Power Generation Company (NWPGC), who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera it was “highly unlikely”.

At least 53 of the country’s 153 power plants have been shut for the past few weeks for maintenance or a lack of fuel due to the dollar shortage, data from the state-owned Power Grid Company of Bangladesh said.

Bangladesh heatwave
People collect drinking water from a roadside tap during a countrywide heatwave in Dhaka [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Only 49 power plants are running at full capacity while the remaining 51 still under operation are running at half capacity due to fuel shortages, the data showed.

As a result, the South Asian nation of 170 million people is facing unprecedented load-shedding of about 2,500 megawatts, equivalent to what the country produced in the late 1990s.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday acknowledged the people’s suffering due to the power cuts and said the intense heatwave has only worsened the situation.

“Who would have thought that the temperature would go up to 41 degrees?” she told a meeting arranged by the ruling Awami League party.

Hasina, also the country’s power and energy minister, said her government has signed deals with Qatar and Oman to buy fuel and has taken measures to import more coal.

“You have to be economical in using electricity. We are not alone. The whole world is facing a fuel crisis because of the Russia-Ukraine war,” she said.

Bangladesh heatwave
Officials say the heatwave is likely to continue for the next few days [Monirul Alam/EPA]

‘It is only getting worse’

The industries in Bangladesh, including the country’s crucial ready-made garments (RMG) sector, which accounts for more than 80 percent of its export earnings, have been hit hard by power outages.

Factory owners say the crisis has raised their production costs and forced them to cut or delay output.

Sazzad Hossain, who owns an RMG company, told Al Jazeera that machines are silent for hours in his factory due to the frequent power cuts.

“We are operating on a deadline to make the shipments and if we miss any, the buyers won’t pay us,” he said.

Hossain said he was forced to opt for a costlier alternative to meet shipment deadlines: chartering a flight and sending them by air.

“This leaves no margin and even loss sometimes. It essentially curbs our export earning which will only aggravate the ongoing dollar crisis,” he said.

Bangladesh heatwave
A man rides a bicycle during a hot day near the Dhaka University in Dhaka [Monirul Alam/EPA]

Shamsul Alam, energy adviser to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), said the power crisis will not be solved in the near future.

“The government has been saying this for the past one year but the fact is it is only getting worse,” he told Al Jazeera.

Alam said the electricity crisis is not just due to the Ukraine war but also due to the shortcomings in the energy policy of the government.

“We have already put too many eggs in one basket as our power production is heavily dependent on natural gas,” he said, stressing that at least 52 percent of the country’s electricity is produced by using natural gas.

“The reserves in the gas fields are declining and the government, instead of focusing on new gas field explorations, opted for the costly LNG imports,” he said.

Alam said the dependency on LNG is dangerous as events such as a war could disrupt its market and cause a manifold surge in its price.

“Our government should have opted for a better energy mix to reduce the dependency on a single fuel,” he said.

At Rangpur, meanwhile, there is no immediate relief for graphic designer Ali.

“Power cuts are not just affecting my work but my health as well. Because of the excessive heat, I feel fatigued the whole day. And I can’t cool off by turning the fan on,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera