Bangladesh normally is unwilling to take bilateral disputes with neighbouring countries to any international forum. However, the maritime boundary dispute with India and Myanmar was a significant exception.
Bangladesh opted for arbitration with the international court as it could not resolve the issue through bilateral negotiations with either of the countries. This was a bold step by the Awami League led mahajote ('grand alliance') government elected in 2008.
It came as quite a surprise to India and Myanmar that Bangladesh took up such an initiative. The two countries were both shocked and taken aback by Bangladesh’s action at the time.
The international Court’s decision, in both cases, went in favour of Bangladesh. We celebrated this success as a great maritime victory.
Bangladesh’s settlement of the maritime boundary dispute with Myanmar was finalised by the international court in 2012 and that with India in 2014. Bangladesh gained absolute rights over about 118,000 square kilometres of 'blue space'. Years have passed since then and now the question is, how did we benefit from this victory?
In recent times, globally, governments of coastal countries and islands perceive maritime territory as the new economic frontier, according to a report of the Economic Intelligence Unit in 2015.
Many countries adopt policies for growth based on blue economy. Take Indonesia for instance. They have increased their dependence on the sea for the source of food, minerals, energy and and medicines. Experts are researching on how seas and maritime resources can be utilised. There are naturally the ocean-based traditional trades such as ports and shipping, sea transport and tourism.
It is a matter of concern that maritime resources are not unlimited. These are related to the environment, nature and climate change. As a result, planned, coordinated, and vigilant initiatives are imperative.
The World Bank Group released a survey titled 'Towards a Blue Economy: A Pathway for Sustainable Growth in Bangladesh' in 2018. It stated that Bangladesh has not taken any comprehensive policy plan as yet regarding its blue economy.
There is a stark lack of data and information regarding blue economy in Bangladesh. The World Bank drew up its survey based on information from various sources.
According to the World Bank, the contribution of blue economy (or Gross Value Added) to the economy of Bangladesh in the 2014-15 fiscal was 6.2 billion dollars, that is, 3 per cent of the total economy.
There is also an account of each sector’s contribution to the blue economy. The contribution of the tourism sector was 25 per cent, fishing and aquaculture 22 per cent and oil and gas resources 19 per cent. This calculation was based on the data available from 2010 to 2014. After gas extraction from Bangladesh's only offshore gas field Sangu ended in 2013, the oil and gas sector's contribution to the blue economy dwindled to zero.
The settlement of the maritime boundary dispute may have gone in favour of Bangladesh, but it failed to speed up the blue economy as had been hoped. No major progress has been noted except for the formation of a small administrative cell called ‘Blue Economy Cell’ in 2017 under the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources.
The cell, however, does not hold any legal authority. There is no obligation to accept their decisions either. Therefore, the concerned parliamentary committee in October 2017 recommended that this cell be replaced by an authority vested with legal powers. One and a half years have passed since then. The foreign ministry organised two workshops at the national level in 2014 and 2017, identifying 26 potential sectors of blue economy. And that is about it.
After the maritime boundary dispute was settled, the most discussed issue was offshore oil and gas field exploration. It is assumed that there are huge reserves of oil and gas under the sea of this part of the world. And yet, ironically, while we celebrated the maritime victory with such fanfare, it has been Myanmar that is active in raking in the benefits of the blue economy. They not only discovered gas reserves within two years of the dispute being settled in 2012, but also have started extracting gas from a block near the Bangladesh boundary.
Myanmar has been using that gas domestically and exporting it to China. At the same time, they have been exploring in most of the other blocks. They readied themselves even before the settlement of the dispute. India is not sitting idly either. State and private oil and gas companies of India have been conducting surveys meticulously in hope of finding huge reserves.
Yet we remain impassive, not taking minimum preparation even after settlement of the dispute. Twenty six blocks -- 11 shallow and 15 deep shore ones -- have been identified after the settlement of the dispute. A long time has passed since then. As of 2019, agreements have been signed with foreign companies for survey in four blocks but we could not drill a single well till now.
There is not activity whatsoever regarding the remaining 22 blocks. We still cannot make up our minds whether or not to have a ‘multi-client survey’ before production and sharing agreements with foreign companies. The initiative for ‘multi-client survey’ has been taken in 2014 and work started accordingly. This was supposed to have been completed by now. Had there been a culture of accountability in the country, the energy ministry and Petrobangla would have been forced to explain these lapses.
Danger looms large over the country’s industrial sector in face of energy shortage, whereas initiatives to explore for fuel reserves in the deep sea blocks have been stalled for years. Myanmar is exporting gas while we are importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) and have set up costly LNG plants to process this gas, costing us four to five times more than the local gas price.
The maritime boundary dispute settlement opened up the seas to us for extensive fishing, but we have failed to exploit that opportunity too. Our trawlers are not capable to fishing beyond 70 kilometres offshore. There are over 600 more kilometres of open sea for fishing which we fail to explore. Recently several initiatives and proposals have been approved for deep sea fishing, but why has this taken so long?
The 26 sectors identified for blue economy include tourism, ports, shipping, renewable energy in sea (current and wind), minerals and other sea resources including oil and gas. A feasibility study is necessary to plan on prioritising these sectors. But the concerned ministries and agencies embroiled in squabbles over who will have control on the blue economy sector. It has been proved time and again that such conflicts simply stall work with no outcome.
The insignificant ‘blue economy cell’ of the ministry of power, energy and mineral resources will not do. There needs to be an authority endowed with legal powers to reap benefits of the blue economy. Many deem a separate ministry is also necessary. We must advance in that direction if we want the blue economy to play a strong role in boosting and sustaining our economic growth.
* AKM Zakaria is senior associate editor of Prothom Alo. The article, originally published in print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat and Shameem Reza