Climate funds being spent for installation of street lights

Prothom Alo

Women in the coastal area of Satkhira’s Shyamnagar upazila need to travel a long way every day to fetch drinking water as the water near their homestead is not potable due to salinity.

Sraboni Biswas, 39, from Arpangashia village under Burigoalini union in Shyamnagar, said she has to travel twice a day to a place three kilometers away.

The government has a fund for the people like Sraboni who are victims of climate change-induced hazards. This fund is officially named ‘Bangladesh Climate Change Trust (BCCT). The fund is also known as the climate fund. This fund was initiated in 2009 to take up projects linked to climate change.

In the last five years, several projects of installing solar street lights were taken up under the fund.  Ironically though, setting up street lamps has no direct link to climate change. Neither such projects were in the government’s priority list. On top of that, these solar panels and lights are not lasting long.

A total of 322 projects were taken from the climate fund between 2019 and 2023. A total of 209 of these were street lamp projects. Total spending in these projects was Tk 3.38 billion. A total of 23 projects were sanctioned for construction of drainage at a cost of 410 million.

The remaining 90 projects are linked with eco-tourism, conservation of biodiversity, prevention of soil erosion, prevention of soil degradation, cultivation of vegetables and spices in water bodies, production of saplings for afforestation across the country, construction of eco-friendly climate-resilient houses, restoration and conservation of biodiversity in national parks and safe water supply. 

The exact figure of these 322 projects could not be ascertained as the persons who are in charge of managing the fund remain tight lipped about it. However, it has been learnt that a total 969 projects were sanctioned under the climate fund since 2009 at Tk 39.68 billion. 

Environment minister Saber Hossain Chowdhury was asked as to how the projects of installing street lights and construction of drainage could be sanctioned with the climate fund. He declined to make any comment on what was done in the past but maintained that no such projects would be approved from the climate fund in future. 

He added that the fund was basically initiated emphasising on climate adaptation. But installing street lamps and constructing drainage lines have no link with climate adaptation. 

This correspondent talked with at least five officials and persons related with projects about the inclination behind taking such projects. They maintained that these projects are approved ‘based on relations’. Illegal transactions are made to get the fund. The implementation of these projects is also easier while profit is high. On the other hand, preparing project proposals for climate change adaptation projects is complex and implementation of such projects is also tougher.

Several contractor firms said allocation for each street light ranged between Tk 125,000 and Tk 175,000 while a good quality solar panel, battery and poles now cost around Tk 60,000.

A report by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in November, 2020, found out that over 54 per cent funding of seven climate change mitigation projects was embezzled or wasted through various irregularities and corruptions. These seven projects were taken up on political consideration. The TIB report said there are allegations against a minister's personal assistant of accepting 10 per cent project money in advance as a bribe in exchange of managing approval of three of these seven projects.

Approval from board of 10 ministers, five secretaries

Bangladesh is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. According to a 2021 report by the non-profit organization German Watch, Bangladesh is number seven among the 10 countries and regions that suffered the most damage from 2000 to 2019.

In 2009, the government of Bangladesh established the climate fund with its own funds to undertake projects to fight climate change. An Act was made the following year to manage the fund and a board of trustees was constituted. The chairman of the board is the environment minister. A total of 10 ministers and state ministers including the finance minister, agriculture minister and food minister are members of the board. Five secretaries of various ministries and the governor of Bangladesh Bank are also on the board. This board approves the projects under the fund. 

The trustee board had a meeting on 26 February in 2023 where 69 projects were approved. Of these, 57 were on installing street lights costing Tk 850 million. The last meeting of the board was held in October. A total of 47 projects were approved at the meeting, of which 32 were street light installation projects at a cost of Tk 520 million.

The trust’s managing director Joynal Abedin told Prothom Alo that the trust only brings the projects to the meeting while the trustee board approves the projects.

Shahab Uddin, who was environment minister in the last cabinet, was the chairman of the trustee board. The street light projects were mostly taken up during his tenure. Asked why such projects were taken, he told Prothom Alo on Wednesday (20 March) that the projects were approved because of necessity.

However, the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) made in 2009 states where the climate fund money will be spent, with five areas of climate adaptation prioritised. The priority sectors are food security, social safety and health, integrated disaster management, infrastructure, research and knowledge management and institutional capacity and efficiency building. Less importance is attached to mitigation including reducing carbon emissions.

In the national action plan, adaptation means projects like construction of dams, supply of fresh water, production of salt tolerant crop seeds, floating vegetable cultivation and mitigation means projects such as construction of street lights, rest houses and drainage. Mitigation is given less importance in the action plan. However, the projects linked with mitigation appear to get more priority.

Brac University’s emeritus professor and climate change expert Ainun Nishat is one of the members of the trustee board. He told Prothom Alo that projects such as installation of street lamps and construction of drainage have no link with climate change. Many such projects were taken up in the last five years which were not required.

It has been seen that adaptation projects such as construction of dams and supply of fresh water used to get priority before 2019.  Later, projects of installation of street lamps and drainage construction started to get priority. Projects to alleviate the fresh water crisis were fewer. For example, Shyamnagar and Assasuni upazilas of Satkhira suffer from acute shortage of fresh water. However, no project under climate fund has been taken in five years to eliminate that crisis in the two upazilas.

Ataul Haque, Shyamnagar upazila’s former chairman and recently elected lawmaker of Satkhira-4, told Prothom Alo on Saturday that he tried hard to get money from the climate fund for projects to alleviate the fresh water crisis in Shyamnagar but didn't get the any allocation.

Ataul said he will continue to try to get allocations for fresh water projects as he has become MP now.

Street lights don’t work

Six correspondents of Prothom Alo visited six pourashavas—Chuadanga, Chougachha in Jashore, Cox’s Bazar, Noakhali, Noagaon and Pirojpur—to see how the project of solar street lights is working. It was found that in some places the solar panels have gone out of order while in some places the lights don’t work. In some places, the lights are lit after sunset but go out after a while. However, the solar panels were supposed to last for five years and street lights to lit all night.

In Chuadanga pourashava, two projects were taken up at Tk 30 million in 2019 and 2022. It was found that the poles, solar panels, batteries and lamps are there, but most of the street lights do not work. The mayor of the municipality, Jahangir Alam, expressed his disappointment with the street lights and told Prothom Alo that many of the lights are out of order. The main objective of the project has largely failed. 

A total of 150 street lights were installed in 12 wards in Cox’s Bazar pourashava two years ago. Of these, 30 solar panels are currently out of order. 

A solar panel installed beside the gate of Samitipara Jame Masjid of ward no. 1 of Cox's Bazar pourashava was found out of order during a visit on Saturday. Councilor of this ward Akhtar Kamal told Prothom Alo that four out of eight solar panels installed in his area are out of order. These cannot be repaired due to lack of allocation. 

The project of installing solar street lights in Gopalganj pourashava area was approved in 2020. Assistant director of climate change fund Mustafa Raihan visited the project on 6 February. He mentioned in the report that the street lights were not installed as per the approved design and standards of the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA). Tests revealed that the street lights have half of the specified standard.

Mustafa Raihan also wrote in the report that lamps have been stolen in many places, solar panels have been removed and installed elsewhere, some have been placed where sunlight is not adequate and some lamps do not work.

Muhith cut allocation

In April 2015, the late finance minister Abul Mal Abdul Muhith sent a letter to all members of the trust in the wake of allegations of widespread irregularities and corruption in the climate fund. He then wrote in the letter, 'I don't see any justification for keeping the fund any longer due to the way it is being used.'

However, the fund was not closed later but allocation was slashed. The trust fund used to get allongation of Tk five to seven billion, but allocation was reduced to Tk 500 million to 1 billion since 2015. In 2022-23, the fund got an allocation of Tk one billion.

Sraboni Biswas is not aware of all these funds, hundreds of projects or street lights. She only knows that she has to travel three kilometers every day to bring drinking water for children. Shraboni told this correspondent that she has been fetching water for 13 years. It takes her five hours a day only to go back and forth to fetch water.

“Now tell me how many years of life have been spent on this (bringing water),” Sraboni asked.

[Staff Correspondents of Cox’s Bazar and Noakhali, and correspondents of Chuadanga, Naogaon and Pirojpur, and Pirojpur office contributed to this report]