Basket Case to Beacon
How Bangladesh Transformed Itself into a Modern and Resilient Society
“I do not say anything to intellectuals. I respect them. I would only say this to them . . . please use your intellects for the welfare of the people.” — Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Father of the Nation (Bangladesh), from his last public address, Suhrawardy Uddan, March 26, 1975
The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the independence from Pakistan of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1971 and also commemorates the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The nation was born amid a devastating climate disaster. The 1970 Bhola cyclone killed up to half a million people and remains one of the deadliest cyclones in recorded history.Naomi Hossain, “The 1970 Bhola Cyclone, Nationalist Politics, and the Subsistence Crisis Contract in Bangladesh,” Disasters 42, no. 1 (2018): 187–203, https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12235. Bhola was the island where the cyclone landed first; interestingly, it is also the place where, in 2017, the latest gas field was discovered.
The human toll of the disaster was amplified by a woefully insufficient response by the government of Pakistan and sparked renewed demands for independence in what was then East Pakistan. A brutal crackdown and genocide carried out by the Pakistani military followed, and over the next nine months, in the War of Independence, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and an estimated 200,000 women were raped and 6 million homes were destroyed.Mahfuz Sadique, “Closure from 1971 Bangladesh War Comes at a High Cost,” BBC News, April 18, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world...; “Bangladesh Sets Up War Crimes Court: Government to Try Those Accused of Atrocities During Country’s Battle for Independence,” Al Jazeera, March 25, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20...; and “Bangladesh: Mujib's Road from Prison to Power,” Time, Jan. 17, 1972, http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,877626-1,00.html.But independence ultimately prevailed, under the extraordinary leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
From these beginnings, Bangladesh has remained, in the imagination of much of the wealthy, developed world, a basket case of poverty and looming climate catastrophe, and a poster child for what will befall the global poor if the world does not act to address climate change.
In fairness, the country’s low elevation and high population density do make it distinctly vulnerable to rising sea levels and natural hazards like cyclones.Nandini Sanyal and Sakib Rahman Siddique Shuvo, “Coastal Hazards in Asian Countries in the Context of Climate Change,” International Energy Journal 20, no. 3A (2020): 535–48, https://ed7682cf-e236-4998-af9...; and Sheikh Tawhidul Islam et al., “Development of Climate Change Perceptions and Programmes (1980-2020) in Bangladesh: Lessons Learned and Way Forward,” International Energy Journal 20, no. 3A (2020): 567–78, https://ed7682cf-e236-4998-af90-23aace04b9c8.filesusr.com/ugd/dc0393_85dc6b02925d4727b6732a2b5c2cf118.pdf.But this narrative of Bangladesh as a climate victim in waiting is partial at best and almost entirely misinformed regarding the nation’s development over recent decades. Bangladesh in fact represents a startling success story — of resilience in the face of disaster and human cruelty, and of the power of self-determination, development, poverty alleviation, and technology.Joyashree Roy et al., “Fast-Growing Developing Countries: Dilemma and Way Forward in a Carbon-Constrained World,” in Sustainable Development Insights from India: Selected Essays in Honour of Ramprasad Sengupta, ed. Purnamita Dasgupta, Anindita Roy Saha, and Robin Singhal (Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2021); and Hasan Mahmud and Joyashree Roy, “Sustainable Energy Sector for Fast-Growing Economy like Bangladesh: How Relevant Are the Past Asian Precedents?,” International Energy Journal 20, no. 3A (2020): 381–94, https://ed7682cf-e236-4998-af90-23aace04b9c8.filesusr.com/ugd/dc0393_127b64bd14334e4c8a4377acdc855bd8.pdf.
Between 1990 and 2016, both extreme poverty and infant mortality in Bangladesh fell some 70 percent, and boys and girls now attend school in equal numbers.Roy et al., “Fast-Growing Developing Countries”; and Mahmud and Roy, “Sustainable Energy Sector,” 383.Life expectancy today is only seven years shy of that of the United States, and the nation’s fertility rate has been cut in half. As a result, the annual population growth rate has come down to 1 percent.Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Population Growth Rate, 1950-2020: Table,” World Population Growth, May 2019, https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth.Bangladesh has had significant growth in the last decade, and in 2015, it graduated to a “lower middle-income” country in the World Bank’s classification.World Bank, “Bangladesh,” World Development Indicators, accessed July 5, 2021, https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators.
While global environmentalists were warning of a looming humanitarian crisis, Bangladesh was adapting to climate change and becoming better prepared for natural disasters. Compared to up to half a million deaths from the Bhola cyclone and 3,500 deaths in the 2007 cyclone, death tolls from the several cyclones each decade since then have been in the triple and even double digits.“Tropical Cyclones,” U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh, accessed July 5, 2021, https://bd.usembassy.gov/u-s-c...; and Ilan Kelman, “Bangladesh Has Saved Thousands of Lives from a Devastating Cyclone: Here’s How,” FloodList, June 9, 2020, https://floodlist.com/asia/bangladesh-cyclone-amphan-evacuations.These death rates have dramatically improved thanks in large part to a comprehensive disaster management program combining better forecasting and understanding of disaster risks, public education campaigns, and infrastructure investments.
Against claims that climate change and poverty will condemn poor nations to perpetual crisis and catastrophe, Bangladesh has simply gotten on with the business of development and adaptation. The nation’s leaders have not waited only for the rich world to shower beneficent technologies or adaptation funds upon them, but have taken matters into their own hands. Bangladesh now aspires to achieve developed country status by 2041 and has a roadmap to get there, with a particular focus on crucial growth in the energy and power sector.Mahmud and Roy, “Sustainable Energy Sector,” 381.
That journey, as it has almost everywhere else, has come with a fair share of fossil fuel development. But as the world faces up to the triple challenge of poverty alleviation, climate change mitigation, and climate adaptation, Bangladesh is best viewed as a beacon, not a basket case, one that offers important and inspiring lessons about both development and climate adaptation. Those lessons will be no less relevant for Bangladesh’s eventual clean energy transition.
Bangladesh is fortunate to have a rich domestic endowment of natural gas, which became the driving force of its modernization. Energy development there began prior to independence. But the nation’s socioeconomic transformation could only truly get underway after Bangladesh leaders had seized control of the country’s own destiny and harnessed its resource endowment for national development.
With the Bangladesh Petroleum Act in 1974, which nationalized the country’s energy resources, the nation was increasingly able to chart its own course, contracting with both nationally owned and global companies for long-term investment in exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels, most especially the nation’s gas reserves.“The Bangladesh Petroleum Act, 1974,” Laws of Bangladesh, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, November 28, 1974, http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-details-480.html.Chief among the nationally owned energy companies were the Bangladesh Mineral Exploration and Development Corporation and the Bangladesh Oil and Gas Corporation, which were later merged to form PetroBangla.
Natural gas development helped fuel spectacular growth in food production. The nation established the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council and the Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture to transform traditional agriculture by developing high-yielding variety seeds, subsidizing domestically manufactured synthetic fertilizer, and expanding irrigation. The nation’s leaders wisely resisted advice from multilateral development institutions to cut subsidies for fertilizer, water, and power, instead prioritizing equity and food security.See, for example, Ethel Sennhauser and Qimiao Fan, Dynamics of Rural Growth in Bangladesh: Sustaining Poverty Reduction, Report Number 103244-BD (Washington, DC: World Bank, May 17, 2016), https://documents1.worldbank.o...; and A Citizens’ Guide to Energy Subsidies in Bangladesh (Winnipeg, Canada: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2012), ww.iisd.org/gsi/sites/default/files/ffs_bangladesh_czguide.pdf.
Investments in natural gas production for domestic development, fertilizer, water, and power allowed Bangladesh to become self-sufficient in food and a significant exporter of textiles, apparel, and leather products. Today, natural gas constitutes over 60 percent of the country’s primary energy.Mahmud and Roy, “Sustainable Energy Sector,” 388.
In this way, Bangladesh has often succeeded by ignoring the advice and importunement of international development institutions and well-meaning NGOs, most recently with the $3.7 billion Padma Multipurpose Bridge project. The project is creating a bridge carrying a highway and railway over the Padma River to connect eastern Bangladesh, which is well endowed with oil, gas, and mineral resources, and the western region, which is not, in order to alleviate energy scarcity in the west that has long hobbled development and poverty alleviation efforts.
The World Bank and other international development banks cancelled development finance funding for the project in 2012 based on alleged corruption.Subsequently, Bangladesh and Canadian courts cleared the accused officials of corruption charges. See “All Padma Bridge Graft Accused Acquitted,” The Daily Star, October 26, 2014, https://www.thedailystar.net/a...; and “Canada Court Finds No Proof of Padma Bridge Bribery Conspiracy,” The Daily Star, February 15, 2017, https://www.thedailystar.net/world/north-america/canada-court-finds-no-proof-padma-bridge-graft-conspiracy-1359397.The government moved forward with the project anyway. Despite skepticism by international observers, the six-kilometer bridge is now structurally completed and slated to open in 2022, finally connecting eastern Bangladesh with western Bangladesh.“Padma Bridge Likely to Open to Traffic by June 2022,” Dhaka Tribune, December 10, 2020, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/12/10/padma-bridge-likely-to-open-for-traffic-by-june-2022.
Similarly, Bangladesh is also on track to complete construction of a 2.4 GW Russian-built and -financed nuclear power plant on the western shore of the Padma River, also without development finance from multilateral development institutions, in order to bring electricity to the nation’s western region.““Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Ishwardi,” Power Technology, accessed July 6, 2021, https://www.power-technology.com/projects/rooppur-nuclear-power-plant-ishwardi/.
In these ways, Bangladesh can be a model and inspiration for many least developed countries. The nation has achieved such extraordinary progress by harnessing natural resource endowments and advanced technology to modernize agriculture, industry, and power generation and escape the low-growth trap. But success also required two further and critical ingredients.
First, resource development and technology were complemented by a range of far-reaching social policies focused on empowering women and girls. These include not only standard family planning and education policies,N. Huq, “Policies and Strategies: Bangladesh,” Integration 33 (August 1992): 44–45, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12343895/.but also social policies that actively favor women,See, for example, Bangladesh: Gender, Poverty, and the Millennium Development Goals—Country Gender Strategy (Manila, Philippines: Bangladesh Resident Mission and Regional and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank, 2004), https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional-document/32545/country-gender-strategy-bangladesh.pdf.including additional stipends for girls’ education to support ancillary needs and offering higher interest rates on bank accounts in which the sole holder is a woman. In contrast to many less-developed countries, which have focused on economic growth first, followed by social development, Bangladesh prioritized both, proving that it is possible to achieve growth and equitable distribution together.
Second, productive use of energy — gas-based fertilizer, power, cement, and other industrial production activity — has expanded more rapidly than consumptive (household) use.Robert F. Ichord Jr., Transforming the Power Sector in Developing Countries: Geopolitics, Poverty, and Climate Change in Bangladesh (Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, Global Energy Center, January 2020), 4, Figure 2, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Power-Transformation-Bangladesh-final-web-version.pdf.Both self-determination and improved living standards could only be achieved by growing and diversifying the nation’s subsistence, predominantly via its fishing- and agriculture-based economy. Innovation, social justice, and good governance could only thrive if the nation dramatically expanded its productive capacities.
In short, Bangladesh’s remarkable story of development, poverty alleviation, and climate resilience is inseparable from its independence and self-determination, democracy, and social justice. To achieve all of those ends, Bangladesh had to take control of its energy resources and energy destiny.
To continue its journey toward developed nation status, Bangladesh will need to produce and consume much more energy still. The Bangladesh Revised Master Plan of 2016 projected that “electricity demand would more than double over the period to 2041.”Ichord, Transforming the Power Sector, 3–4.Bangladesh’s natural gas reserves are fast depleting.Mahmud and Roy, “Sustainable Energy Sector,” 387.Coal mining and generation of electricity are growing in the western region of the country but face opposition from environmental groups. So too does nuclear energy, despite its low carbon profile.
The nation has ample hydrologic resources for hydroelectric power. But harnessing those resources will not be possible without large-scale displacement of communities in a densely populated region. Bangladesh intends to import hydroelectric and coal-fired electricity from India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Thailand (via Myanmar),Saiful Islam and Md. Ziaur Rahman Khan, “A Review of Energy Sector of Bangladesh,” Energy Procedia 110 (2017): 617–18, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316371662_A_Review_of_Energy_Sector_of_Bangladesh.but these imports are not going to be sufficient to meet growing energy demand going forward. Recently, the country started to import liquified natural gas (LNG).Ichord, Transforming the Power Sector, 9.Imports of LNG and liquified petroleum gas are relatively easy to expand, given the nation’s well-developed gas distribution infrastructure.
The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, renamed and rejuvenated in 1973 after independence, is continuing to work towards the development of domestic nuclear power and technologies.
In 2008, the government established its Renewable Energy Policy, calling for solar and wind to produce 10 percent of the country’s total energy in 2021, and in 2014 it created the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority to oversee renewable energy development.Ichord, Transforming the Power Sector, 4, 11.
But potential for wind and solar is limited in Bangladesh. Most of its land is fertile and is needed for food production. Unused nonagricultural land is difficult to find because the nation is so densely populated. In a region that is highly vulnerable to storms and floods, land and soil are fragile; energy infrastructure, particularly that with a large land footprint, needs to be disaster-proofed; and highlands need to be reserved for populations to flee coastal floods and cyclones.
What is clear is that, faced with growing energy demand alongside growing concern about climate change, Bangladesh, like all fossil fuel-based economies, faces multiple risks. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged that faster and deeper mitigation strategies entail threats to multiple social and economic dimensions of sustainable development for countries with high dependence on fossil fuels for national income, economic development, and employment.Myles Allen et al., “Summary for Policymakers,” in Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report (Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, United Nations, 2018), 21, para. D.4.4, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_SPM_version_report_LR.pdf.
The IPCC report also talks of the need to diversify countries’ economies and energy sectors to mitigate these adverse consequences of decarbonization.Joyashree Roy et al., “Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication, and Reducing Inequalities,” in Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report, chapter 5, 461, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_Chapter5_Low_Res.pdf.Overall, however, the diversification discourse is mostly dominated by a focus on new investment opportunities in the wind and solar energy sectors and transition issues for major oil-exporting economies, while ignoring the multiple challenges faced by many small but fast-emerging developing countries like Bangladesh and many more in Asia and Africa.Joyashree Roy et al., “Moving Beyond Gas: Can Bangladesh Leapfrog and Make the Energy Transition Just by Exploring the Role of Geothermal Energy and Gas Infrastructure?,” International Energy Journal 20, no. 3A (2020): 395–410, https://ed7682cf-e236-4998-af90-23aace04b9c8.filesusr.com/ugd/dc0393_2ffcef28741146789668e9e2f25f5e31.pdf.
For those nations, the key issues are threefold and phased. First, how can they best use their existing fossil fuel endowments to accelerate development that will address poverty, increase resilience, and expand capacities that will be necessary for the energy transition? Second, how might low carbon energy augment current fossil resources to both diversify the energy economy and help meet fast-growing demand? Third, how might the existing fossil fuel-oriented infrastructure, knowledge base, and workforce be repurposed to the energy transition?
The critical answer to the first question is that energy development must prioritize productive domestic use. Sustaining and accelerating economic growth and development are preconditions for any low carbon transition in low-income countries and create the social, economic, political, and technological capacities necessary for that transition.
Given that situation, for developing countries like Bangladesh that are both dependent on and produce fossil energy, the best path to decarbonization has two further and crucial features. First, the country must leverage its existing energy infrastructure, workforce, and knowledge base. Second, it must include large amounts of firm clean energy, which can produce power on demand. For Bangladesh, like many other countries with significant gas production and distribution infrastructure, two promising clean energy sources are geothermal and hydrogen.
Geothermal energy has been used for heat and power generation for many years in many countries, although it does not make up a very large share of total global energy generation. The main barrier to utilization of geothermal energy has been the high cost of infrastructure installation, with drilling and well construction accounting for the major part of the total cost. What is now gaining increased attention globally is use of oil and gas exploration wells and depleted wells for generation of geothermal heat and power.Roy et al., “Moving Beyond Gas,” 398–99.
Such use results in a drastic reduction in the installation cost of geothermal plants. But to make this new transition happen for Bangladesh, additional technological, institutional, legal, economic, and management issues deserve attention. Utilizing existing wells for geothermal energy production requires wells with a sufficient remaining lifetime and understanding of their construction and current status to justify additional investments. Bangladesh began planning to build its first geothermal power generation plant, with a capacity of 200 MW, a decade ago.“Anglo MGH Energy Plans to Set Up Bangladesh’s First Geothermal Power Plant,” Power Engineering, March 7, 2011, https://www.power-eng.com/renewables/anglo-mgh-energy-plans/#gref.But that project remains in the planning stage.
Conversion of exploration and depleted natural gas wells to geothermal production could offer a new paradigm for just and sustainable development for Bangladesh. In a recent study, my colleagues Hasan Mahmud, Mohsen Assadi, Niyaz Iman, Homam Nikpey, and I used deep gas well data to demonstrate that existing wells can be used as a geothermal energy source not only for electricity but for direct space cooling, using heat pumps or absorption chillers.Roy et al., “Moving Beyond Gas,” 402–7.
Hydrogen became an important part of the energy industry in the mid-20th century.The Future of Hydrogen, Seizing Today’s Opportunities: Report Prepared by the IEA for the G20 and Japan (Paris: International Energy Agency, June 2019), 17, https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-hydrogen.Today, as the challenge of replacing fossil fuel use outside the power sector has become clear, hydrogen has received renewed focus as a fuel that might replace oil and gas at scale two or three decades from now.See, for example, The Future of Hydrogen; and Constantine Levoyannis, “Can the EU Successfully Build a Hydrogen Economy?,” Brink, February 11, 2021, https://www.brinknews.com/can-the-eu-successfully-build-a-hydrogen-economy/.As with geothermal, there are a number of ways that Bangladesh’s existing gas infrastructure might be repurposed over time to support a hydrogen economy.
Half of the world’s hydrogen is produced with natural gas. Given Bangladesh’s current gas production and infrastructure, some proportion of its current gas production might be used to produce hydrogen while simultaneously capturing emitted carbon and pumping it back into depleting gas wells. Doing so could increase national gas production for a time while serving as a long-term reservoir to store captured carbon. This infrastructure could then be gradually transitioned to so-called green hydrogen as Bangladesh’s limited natural gas reserves are depleted. Green hydrogen is produced without fossil fuels, instead using electricity and heat from renewable sources or nuclear energy.“The Global Race to Develop 'Green' Hydrogen,” AFP, March 31, 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/the-global-race-to-develop-green-hydrogen/ar-BB1f8MbV.
Deploying hydrogen at significant scale to displace oil and gas is a chicken-and-egg problem, requiring substantial infrastructure to produce hydrogen at costs that might make it an economically viable substitute for fossil fuels, as well as additional infrastructure to get hydrogen to the point of use and further infrastructure to utilize it in industrial processes in place of fossil fuels. Bangladesh has substantial distribution infrastructure but presently lacks infrastructure to produce hydrogen, to capture and store carbon associated with its production, or to use hydrogen in various end uses that would substitute for natural gas.
For this reason, it may make the most sense to begin by first producing so-called grey hydrogen, which is made with fossil fuels and without carbon capture,“Global Race to Develop 'Green' Hydrogen.”in order to provide sufficient fuel at competitive costs for Bangladesh to begin to convert industrial and other processes to enable its use in place of natural gas. Once there has been significant end use conversion to ensure robust demand for hydrogen, conversion to either “blue hydrogen,” meaning hydrogen produced from natural gas with carbon capture, or “green hydrogen,” meaning hydrogen produced from renewable or nuclear energy, would then proceed, depending upon the evolution of both technologies. That transition will likely be necessary anyway, as the nation’s gas reserves are already being depleted, meaning that alternative fuels and feedstocks for fertilizer manufacturing and other industrial processes will be required.
The important point, though, is that nations like Bangladesh with well-developed gas infrastructure have potentially low-cost opportunities to transition that infrastructure from gas to geothermal and hydrogen over time — and in ways that are consistent with both climate and development imperatives.
That a nation that began its journey amid such extraordinary poverty has been able to adapt so successfully to the storms of today should inspire hope that the world might successfully mitigate and adapt to the storms of tomorrow. What Bangladesh demonstrates is that neither poverty nor vulnerability is static and fixed. Wise development of natural endowments, infrastructure, and technology, combined with equitable, democratic, and accountable institutions, have the potential to bring an end to poverty, increase resilience in a changing climate, and steward a just transition to a low carbon future, if given the opportunity.
The vision of Bangladesh as a place on the brink of being overwhelmed by rising seas is as outdated as the notion that it might rapidly transition to renewable energy is unrealistic. In the 50 years since the Bhola cyclone, the nation has reclaimed itself from colonial dispossession, ethnic strife, and poverty, as well as from the rising seas, and carved a path to developed nation status through the development and use of natural gas. To abandon that energy infrastructure precipitously would strand not only the nation’s fossil assets but also its hard-won sovereignty and development gains.
Despite all the technological and institutional marvels of the 20th century, it is a reality that in the 21st century we inherit an unequal world with wide gaps in capabilities, opportunities and access to technologies. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 10 percent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty and unable to meet basic needs, with many more living in moderate or relative poverty.“Ending Poverty,” United Nations, accessed July 6, 2021, https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/ending-poverty.Those individuals are concentrated in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and that percentage is expected to increase as a result of the pandemic. Given countries’ unequal stages of development, there cannot be one single energy sector transition model for the world.
For countries like Bangladesh, fossil fuels cannot be abandoned overnight, at least not within any global framework for climate change and development that could be characterized as sustainable or just. The transition to a low carbon economy in less-developed nations should go as fast as it can and no faster — meaning that affordable, abundant energy services, and all the associated human development and economic benefits that energy brings, cannot be delayed in pursuit of climate mitigation objectives, even if it comes with continued fossil energy consumption.
A just transition must recognize that it is rich countries, over the last century, that are responsible for the vast majority of accumulated greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The long arc of global fossil energy use can be expected to end with the attainment of basic human developmental standards and well-being for today’s poor, but not before that, and even so, with a much smaller contribution to greenhouse gas accumulation, thanks to the improved carbon efficiency of modern energy conversion technologies.
There will be multiple transition models, all context- and path-dependent and all deeply entangled with development imperatives, local histories, governance models, and resource endowments. Those pathways must be determined democratically and not imposed from above. They must respect sovereignty and prioritize self-determination, allowing and supporting developing nations to develop the technologies, infrastructures, and institutions they need to chart their own paths.