Grid failure: Bangladesh’s crushing power outages upend daily lives

Restoring electricity after blackouts in four divisions can take time anywhere

Moinul Hoque ChowdhuryFaysal Atikbdnews24.com
Published : 4 Oct 2022, 08:15 PM
Updated : 4 Oct 2022, 08:15 PM

The everyday life of citizens screeched to a halt across large swathes of Bangladesh, including Dhaka, on Tuesday after a national grid failure knocked down connections to tens of millions of people. 

Dhaka, Chattogram, Sylhet and Mymensingh divisions, along with parts of northern Bangladesh, were affected by the blackout that started just after 2 pm due to a “technical glitch”, according to the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh and the Power Development Board. 

Although authorities tried to bring the grid back up in about three hours, the wait stretched agonisingly to seven hours as many scrambled for drinking water and others stood in long queues for diesel to power up generators. 

The power grid malfunction led to blackouts across 75-80 percent of the country, Bangladesh Power Development Board official Shameem Hasan told Reuters. 

Drawing three-quarters of its electricity from imported natural gas, Bangladesh has been facing frequent power cuts over the past few months following a crunch in fuel supply amid a global crisis. 

The government, which rationed some gas supplies amid high global prices driven up by Russia's war in Ukraine, vowed frugal spending after reporting a record fiscal deficit last year.

Over a third of the country's 77 gas-powered units were running short of fuel. 

WHAT HAPPENED? 

Grid failures generally happen when there is a high mismatch between demand and supply, potentially due to unexpected or sudden changes in power use patterns. 

“If there's a problem in one area, it's bound to spread elsewhere. But we can’t pinpoint the region in which the problem originated for technical reasons,” said Yeakub Elahi Chowdhury, executive director of Power Grid Company. 

He said an investigation was underway to ascertain the reason for the grid's collapse. The blackout lurched into the night. 

Mohammad Hossain, director general of the Power Cell, said they could not find out where the problem occurred because they did not have a “smart grid”. 

Power Secretary Habibur Rahman said they prioritised restoring power. “Glitches are part of the technical system. We can’t say right now what actually happened.” 

“We’ve initially identified a location in Ghorashal, but nothing can be said for sure without investigation. A national grid failure is unimaginable.” 

As the night wore on without electricity, the Power Division apologised to customers who suffered hours of outages that affected nearly half of Bangladesh.

NOT THE FIRST TIME 

In November 2014, the power supply was disrupted for about 36 hours due to a grid failure. Cyclones and other natural disasters have also caused grid disruptions in the past eight years. 

On Sept 7, Bangladesh experienced a grid failure for a few hours. The exact cause and location of the trouble could not be determined. 

Secretary Habibur said “minor problems” can occur on the transmission lines sometimes and it also happens in other countries.

 “We must modernise our system to stop the recurrence of outages by taking preventive measures and reducing technical errors.” 

State Minister for Power Nasrul Hamid also stressed the need for modernisation and automation of the grid by turning it into a “smart grid” in the past. 

Habibur said, “We are working on automation. By installing a smart, automated grid, the source of such disturbances can be identified immediately.” 

He hopes the smart grid will be completely set up in one and a half years. “Once we have the smart grid, we’ll be able to detect what happened and where.” 

Power Cell DG Hossain said they now have to analyse all the factors to find out the reason behind a grid failure. 

For example, he said, they found out the problem occurred somewhere between Ghorashal in Narsingdi and Bheramara during the 2014 grid disaster. But they could not pinpoint where the problem occurred. 

Sometimes a fallen bird or major vibration in an area helps them detect the origin of a grid failure which is caused when one line comes close to another. 

In a Facebook post, State Minister for ICT Zunaid Ahmed Palak said, “Restoration is a lengthy and complex process even if the power grid trips for a second.” 

SUFFERING 

As the grid disaster continued for hours, people started complaining about the water supply amid the sweltering heat. 

Ratan Sikdar Shanto, a small business owner at work, said his wife and children were suffering back at home in the Abdullahpur dam area with no water. Shanto called her over the phone and asked her to gather some water to drink from nearby areas. 

“We get water from a deep tube-well and store it in bottles. I’m at my wit's end. I may have to draw water from the reservoir after returning home at night,” he said. 

All this was made worse by the gradual decline in telecom services. 

Mobile phone users across the country said they were facing difficulties in receiving and making calls, text messaging and accessing the internet. 

Tanu Sen, a resident of Dhaka’s Green Road, said she was not getting any network coverage on her mobile phone.

 "Calls are not going through. Some calls are dropping as well. There is no internet connection at home, so I wanted to use my mobile internet data, but that's not available either,” Tanu said before power was restored. 

Subrata Roy Maitra, vice-chairman of BTRC, said, “We have heard that mobile operators are facing some problems. This is due to the power outage. Their backups are insufficient. So, we have to wait until the power supply is restored.” 

Out on the roads, long queues formed at refuelling stations in Dhaka as offices and homes using electricity generators ran out of fuel hours into the blackout. 

Mohammad Jewel, who works at a commercial building in Banani, came to Crescent Petrol Pump in Mohakhali for diesel. 

He said the 100-litre diesel reserve for the building’s power generator almost dried up after running for hours. 

Hafiz Uddin, an autorickshaw driver, said he failed to get CNG at a refuelling station in Sayedabad as it closed after 7 pm due to darkness. 

The hospitals in Dhaka continued emergency services, such as surgeries and intensive care, by using backup generators, but patients suffered in the general wards and other units with the fans and lights off. 

At the National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital, relatives used hand fans to comfort the patients. Some lit candles. In one ward, three out of 12 ceiling fans were working. All the lights were off. 

Asthma patient Nurul Islam said he sent his son to buy a rechargeable fan because he cannot tolerate excessive cold or heat due to his condition. 

Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Md Shafiqul Islam ordered law enforcers to remain alert against the added risk of crime and disorder as almost all parts of the capital had gone completely dark. 

The outage came as the Durga Puja celebrations played out at 242 venues across the city. Hindus are marking their biggest annual festival in more than 32,000 pavilions across the country. 

The blackout also affected the puja celebrations across the country. 

The garment industry was also hit by the power outage on Tuesday. "To cope with the power crisis, we’ve been using generators,” Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters. “Today's outage was unpredictable. We had to shut our offices because generators can not run for long periods.”

 [Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo and Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]

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Editor-in-Chief and Publisher