The Financial Express

Major utility service providers in Bangladesh ill-prepared to face calamities

Experts find power, gas, water pipelines as powder-kegs for lack of auto-shutdown mechanisms in emergencies

| Updated: October 24, 2017 00:24:41

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The country's major utility-service providers blissfully lie ill-prepared to face any disaster - manmade or natural - for lack of auto-shutdown mechanisms, leaving people and property in risks as ever.

There is possibility of a mega-earthquake which could strike in the relatively near future, potentially affecting 140 million people in the region and leading to complete abandonment of Dhaka, according to a story published recently in the London-based Nature Geosciences.

Bangladesh's two vital cities - Dhaka and Chittagong - having more than 50 per cent shares in the country's $240 billion economy, are most vulnerable to natural catastrophes, according to some predictions.

People familiar with the matters at the utility-service-providing agencies in the two cities told the FE that they were still thinking about such prognosis but with no effective developments yet as to how to combat disasters effectively by minimising loss of life and property.

Earthquakes or other natural calamities like strong storms may cripple lifeline capacity of utility services which may worsen further during post-disaster phases.

However, there are some contingency plans or preparedness for disasters now being adopted in many advanced and vulnerable nations, including Japan. They are auto-shutdown of power plants and gas stations on sensing tremors, meter with options of auto-shuts during crisis and other pre-protections including the setting up of high- quality infrastructure.

The high quality of civil engineering works also helps limit loss of life and property. There are numerous examples of power disruptions in the country for weak infrastructures following collapse of transmission lines and towers.

A 230KV tower of Ashuganj-Sirajganj transmission line was battered by storms, leading to power cuts in many districts, especially in the northern belt.

However, people involved with power generation and distribution in Dhaka and Chittagong said their plants tripped just during high winds or heavy storms but there had been no auto-shuts of power plants following quakes.

Many people working at the power plants in the country told the FE that there is a move for devising preparedness measures but they see this as a 'very much initial stage'.

The state-owned water-supply entity, WASA, which does monopoly business in supplying pure drinking water, also lacks such preparedness for dealing with disasters, along with getting armed with "mitigation" and "response" strategies.

People at Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Limited, which provides the fuel for country's most-densely-populated city, Dhaka, said there is no measure for auto-shutdown of its more than 100 gas stations in the event of any disaster.

There is also need for auto-shuts for household connections to avert any disaster wreaking havoc on life and property.

Engr. H. M. Ali Ashraf, director (operations) at the Titas Gas, told the FE that they were studying whether they could introduce auto-shutdown mechanisms.

"Recently, we visited Tokyo and saw a new method named 'Supreme' which helps shut all gas plants automatically by sensing primary symptoms of quakes."

Mr. Ashraf said having such method is hardly possible in Bangladesh as it involves huge research and investment.

Engineer Khaiz Ahmed Majumder, a general manager at Karnaphuli Gas Distribution Limited, the gas-supply enterprise in the port city, told the FE that they had a taken a move for installing meters with the options of auto-shut of household connections.

Power plants and other agencies dealing with electricity said they were also thinking about the matter as their division asked them recently.

A senior official at North-West Power Generation Company said they were thinking which one comes first for emergency shutdown-plants or lines.

"We're yet to resolve which shut will come first but working on it. But this is very much an initial stage," a senior technical person in the company told the FE.

Power transmission is now vested in a separate entity, following a split from the BPDB, which manages grids across the country. It appears ill-prepared with disaster- preparedness as well.

Heavy storms or winds damage its towers, throwing vast command areas under a blackout.

Managing director of Power Grid Company of Bangladesh Ltd. (PGCB) Masum Al Beruni told the FE that they need huge investment for preparing such plans so that they can protect their structures from high winds or other natural disasters.

"We've so far built tower which can resist wind speeds up to 200 km/hr, and if the wind speed accelerates beyond the limit, towers may collapse," said Mr. Beruni.

Ahsan Habib, a director at Bangladesh Power Development Board, said a government letter he recently received relates to such matter.

"To my mind, there is need for a comprehensive move involving all stakeholders of the power sector to combat natural calamities for minimizing losses of both lives and properties," Mr. Habib told this correspondent at his office in Motijheel area.

The role of the WASA in disaster aftermath involves extinguishing fire if it happens from gas lines or power plants, which now may emerge as another disaster as most of its underground pipelines are fragile. The pipelines, mostly installed in the 1960s and 70s, often leaked without any disaster, causing public suffering.

People familiar with the matters at the two WASAs told the FE that if natural or manmade disasters happen, the underground lines may develop cracks or get damaged severely and that may cause another disaster instead of dousing fires through supply of water through vouchers.
And in such cases water-supply outage will trigger the worsening of the situation for drinking as well.

AKM Fazlullah, managing director at the Chittagong WASA, said: "If there be a long-duration quake, then the pipelines may be damaged, causing another disaster."

The MD, however, said the CWASA has taken a mega-project to replace the old pipeline in the port city by 2022.

An official at the Dhaka WASA said pure drinking water is very much important during post-disaster and recovery phases.

Experts opine that the government should take immediate measures on the matter as the country is vulnerable to different types of natural disasters.

Md Humayun Kabir, a professor of Geography and Environment at Dhaka University, said the government should take measures like the Japanese plan to avert loss of life and property for ill-preparedness.

"Japanese process for preparing disaster mitigation plans is the best and it may be replicated here," Dr Kabir, also a disaster and environment expert, told the FE.

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