When the entire nation is placed under strict stay-at-home order, machines keep whirring round the clock at least 77 project sites in Bangladesh's south-eastern district Cox's Bazar under a mega plan to develop the coastal slope by the Bay of Bengal like a Singapore or Hong Kong city.
The investments are also hefty – more than Tk3 lakh crore, which is equal to 1.5 times of an annual development programme, has been allocated in a single fiscal year.
The plan aims at a massive change to the landscape of the district that now only supplies salt, rubber and fish, making it a hub for tourism, trade and connectivity, better coupling the South Asian region to the Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
Viewed from the air, the Cox's Bazar international airport – its modernisation now near completion – will look like an oyster shell and its runway will stick right out into the blue sea waters, making a flight take-off even more exciting.
Work on connecting the land of natural beauty to Dhaka, Chattogram and other districts through rail lines is also going on to turn its enormous prospects of tourism and deep-sea port-based trade to account. The rail connectivity is expected to launch in a year or so, which will ease the commute to the tourist city.
Not just communication infrastructure, the Matarbari port, the country's first-ever deep-sea port at Maheshkhali in Cox's Bazar, will also be the gamechanger for the country's economy. A deep-sea port – in the fashion of Japan's Kashima port – will play a significant role in enhancing trade connectivity with Bangladesh's main import destinations China and ASEAN countries.
The government is also establishing island-based ecotourism parks along with a modern international airport and economic zones and a power generation hub in the district.
Cox's Bazar, a strategically important place in South Asia, has been neglected since independence despite its huge potential for tourism and investment. The people in the coastal district were destined to survive by fighting natural disasters.
Against this backdrop, the government has been implementing the master plan since 2009 to harness the tourism and investment potential of the district.
During a visit this June, it was found that all the projects were running at top gear overcoming the pandemic-led slowdown.
Among the ongoing megaprojects, the modern airport, the rail line, the 1200MW power plant, the Single Point Mooring (SPM) with a double pipeline, Sabrang Tourism Park and an economic zone will open gradually by 2023, triggering a change in the landscape of the district.
With the launch of the Matarbari deep-sea port, the Maheshkhali economic zone will become an island-based commercial hub.
The region has already become a centre of attraction for many countries, such as Japan, China and India, with so many infrastructure development activities going on.
Work is underway to set up three ecotourism parks at Sabrang, Naf and Sonadia to attract foreign investment to Cox's Bazar and ensure various facilities as per the demand of foreign tourists.
Paban Chowdhury, executive chairman of the Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (Beza), told The Business Standard that it is safe to say that the ongoing projects centring Cox's Bazar, if implemented, will completely change the entire region from Sabrang to Matarbari in the next five years with modern tourism and a large investment.
Beza has a special economic zone covering 4,000 acres at Dhalghata in Maheshkhali. TK Group has already jointly developed 250 acres of land with a foreign company to set up a petrochemical industry and an LPG terminal there. Next to it will be a deep-sea port. As a result, several companies from different countries, including Thailand, have applied for land in the economic zone, he added.
But, Paban said it would take two to three years for all those to be ready. When Maheshkhali is connected to the mainland by the under-construction highway, the 1200MW Matarbari power plant comes into generation, domestic and foreign industries will start investing. For this, the Maheshkhali-Matarbari Integrated Infrastructure Development Initiative (MIDI) project is going on.
Abu Morshed Chowdhury Khuka, president of Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industries, told TBS that the megaprojects being implemented in Cox's Bazar will make the region one of the biggest economic hubs in South Asia in the next five to six years. Once the Rohingya problem with Myanmar is resolved, it will be easier to connect with the Asian highway.
Work on Cox's Bazar international airport is nearing completion. There will be huge investments in the deep-sea port, LNG terminal, modern tourist centres, and economic zones, most of which will come from big domestic and foreign companies. In order to involve local businesses in this development journey, the government has to take initiative now to build a backward linkage, he said.
If there is a huge investment in Maheshkhali and Teknaf in the next five-six years, skilled manpower will also be needed. But the government is yet to give an account of how many skilled workforces will be required. If this information is available in advance, local educated youths can take the necessary training to develop their skills from now on, he added.
Flights will run for 24/7
There is now no alternative round-the-clock communication system to go to Cox's Bazar except by road. Flight operations at the Cox's Bazar airport, which was built during British rule, now become impossible when daylight goes off.
To keep the flight operation at the airport on for 24 hours, work on all necessary installation has been completed. Once it is commissioned officially, planes will be able to take off and land there 24/7.
Work on the modernisation of the airport at a cost of over Tk1193 crore is now nearing completion. In 2015, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the work to turn the airport into the international one, sources said.
The airport will allow tourists, traders and investors from different countries to directly reach Cox's Bazar. Airlines operating on international routes will land here to take fuel as it will also be used as a refuelling hub. It will work as a transit point for passengers from different countries.
According to the engineers involved in the implementation of the airport project, the construction of an international terminal building equipped with all modern facilities as part of the airport's development has made over 40% progress. The work will be completed by next December. Besides, a new separate internal terminal building will also be set up.
The runway at Cox's Bazar Airport has been stretched to 9,000 feet from 6,775 feet. Its width runway has been expanded to 146 feet from 125 feet. In addition, the construction of an apron for parking aircraft is also in the final stage.
The government is implementing another project to increase the length of the runway from 9,000 feet to 10,700 feet to convert it into an international standard airport. As part of this, a part of the Bay of Bengal has been filled in the Matarbari part.
A 1700-foot runway will be built over the sea, which can be extended later as per necessity. Once this section is completed, Cox's Bazar airport will be able to operate all types of international flights.
Chattogram-Cox's Bazar rail line to be launched in 2022
A 101km railway line is being constructed from Dohazari in Chattogram to Cox's Bazar and a 29km railway line from Ramu to Ghumdhum on the Myanmar border to ensure a comfortable, safe, affordable and environment-friendly journey for tourists and locals by ensuring rail connectivity with Cox's Bazar from Chattogram and Dhaka.
More than half of the overall project has so far been completed. The Dohazari-Cox's Bazar section has made more progress, and in some areas, fish plates have been installed.
The project work, which was initially delayed owing to the pandemic and complexities of land acquisition, has now gained momentum. According to the target, if this line is launched in December next year, locally produced dried fish, salt, rubber and fish can be transported across the country at a low cost.
The government decided to set up the railway line in 2009, but the project's field-level work started in 2018. The project was taken up, aiming at making a connection with the Trans-Asian Railway corridor and bringing Cox's Bazar under rail connectivity.
Construction of the iconic station in Cox's Bazar has started under the project. Besides, Work on the infrastructure of nine stations, 39 bridges, 145 culverts, and 96 level crossings of different classes is nearing completion.
Railway Minister Nurul Islam Sujan laid the foundation stone of the railway station building on 14 January this year under the project. The state-of-the-art station in the country has residential hotels, food courts, children's play zones. The six-storey oyster-shaped station will have three platforms and 400 car parking facilities.
Deep-sea port to reduce export-import costs by 15%
With imports for Bangladesh, most of the mother vessels dock at Singapore, Colombo, Hong Kong or Malaysia, and smaller lighterage vessels carry the cargo to Chattogram port. Bigger ships will be able to moor at Matarbari directly once the deep-sea port project is completed.
Then smaller vessels will carry the cargo from Matarbari to Chattogram port or Chattogram Port Bay Terminal. This will save both time and money for Bangladesh in international shipping.
An artificial channel with a 16-metre draft has already been dug. A 100-metre extension of the already-dug channel will connect the deep-sea port that will be able to host a mother vessel with 1.15 lakh tonne cargo.
The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved the Matarbari deep-sea port project in March last year. The construction site – in between Matarbari and Dhalghat – previously was a salt farming field.
World's fourth largest dredger Cassiopeia-V has dug the salt field into the artificial channel. Stone blocks have been dumped at the opening side of the channel in the Bay to prevent siltation and to guide the rough sea.
Currently a ship in a single voyage can carry 1,878 containers to Chattogram port. Container carriers four times bigger than the current capacity will be able to berth at Matarbari – which will reduce the import-export cost by 15%.
The first phase deep-sea port plan consists of constructing two terminals for mother vessels and container carriers. The first phase construction, including the port and connecting roads, has been estimated at Tk17,777 crore with the deadline of 2026. In the second phase, three more container terminals will be built.
Matarbari to be an electricity hub
Machines whir round the clock at remote Maheshkhali upazila to build four power plants on salt fields with a total capacity of 3,600MW.
Two ultra-super critical coal-fired power generation units, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), with a total capacity of 1200MW will be commissioned in 2023. The Jica's funding in the project is so far the largest among the Agency's other worldwide operations.
The project engineers said they already have constructed a jetty for the power plant, and Indonesian ship Vanessa Triumph anchored there for the first time in December last year with construction equipment. The construction of a separate jetty for the oil-carrying mother vessel is almost complete, which will be launched this month.
As part of the jetty construction, a 14.3km channel has been excavated. The engineers said they are now working on the main power units and setting up the boiler.
Chinmoy Das, sub-divisional engineer of the Coal Power Generation Company Bangladesh Limited (CPGCBL), said the channel also benefits the Matarbari deep-sea port project for transporting construction materials.
CPGCBL and Japan's Sumitomo Corporation have jointly acquired land on Kohelia river bank at Matarbari to set up another 1,200MW coal-fired power plant.
Besides, land development and infrastructures constructions have started for the Bangladesh-Singapore 700MW coal-fired power plant.
State Minister for power Nasrul Hamid last week announced scrapping construction of ten coal-fired power plants, two of which are at Matarbari.
But, the two 1,900MW power plants may be turned into LNG or diesel-run production units, said officials.
SPM to launch June next year
Oil carrying mother vessels can come to Kutubdia island as they cannot dock at Chattogram port due to low navigability in the River Karnaphuli. Smaller oil tankers carry fuels from Kutubdia to Chattogram, and thus 1 lakh lakh tonne oil takes 11 days to arrive at the port.
The 30,000-tonne diesel carrying vessels also have to stop at the island, and unload the consignment to smaller carriers to be reached at Chattogram.
To replace the typical process which is slow, costly and risky, the government took up "Installation of Single Mooring (SPM) with Double Pipeline" project, and Dhaka signed a deal with Beijing in 2016 in this regard.
The Tk6,567 crore SPM project will be completed in June next year.
Construction of three high-speed diesel and three crude oil storages has almost finished. Oil from mother vessels at deep sea will come to the storages, and then go to Eastern Refinery depots in Chattogram's Anwara,
The Anwara depots will be connected with the terminal storages with two 220 km pipelines. Once the project is completed, 1.2 lakh tonne oil will take only 48 hours from the mother vessel to the depot – saving Tk8,000 crore annually.
"The project will end within the deadline," Tolgay Mizzak, consulting engineer of the project, told The Business Standard.
With 1.36 lakh cubic metre LNG, Belgian flag carrier Excellence anchored at Matarbari in 2018. Since then, Bangladesh has been heavily dependent on imported liquefied natural gas.
Around 60 crore cubic feet LNG is being supplied from two floating terminals to the national grid per day. Summit has launched a floating terminal at Maheshkhali channel.
The government has decided to set up a permanent land-based LNG terminal at Matarbari as the demand is growing. Two consultation firms were appointed in December last year for the project. According to government estimation, the permanent terminal will go into operation in 2025.
Posh tourism centres at Sabrang, Naf and Sonadia
Around 60-70 lakh tourists come to Cox's Bazar per year. But the number of foreign tourists is still too low.
Sabrang, Naf and Sonadia island are being turned into tourism hotspots to attract the foreign visitors. The Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) is readying the areas as island tourism hubs.
At Sabrang, BEZA has already constructed a five kilometre dam, and land development is now going on there.
The Sabrang Tourism Park will have many tourist attractions such as a five-star hotel, ecotourism, marine aquarium, sea cruise, special designated area for foreigners, Saint Martin's travel arrangements, floating jetties, park, eco-cottages, under water and floating restaurants.
The BEZA has signed deals with Singapore-based Inter Asia Group Private Ltd and local Sunset Bay for constructing the accommodation facilities. Three companies who have taken plots at Sabrang are already building hotels.
One the facilities are set up, the spot will be able to accommodate 39,000 tourists at a time and also generate 11,000 jobs.
Besides, construction of Naf Tourism Park is going on. It will have the Maldives or Thailand-like eco-cottage, live entertainment theatre, shopping mall, cinema, golf club and water sports beach. There will be camping arrangements at night.
The tourism park will have cable cars, and hanging bridges.
The Naf tourism project will be implemented at public-private partnership. After the project ends in 2023, around 12,000 people will be employed here.
"Sabrang will be a tremendous place within the next one year," said Paban Chowdhury.
He also said there will be rehabilitation packages for people who donated their lands for the ecotourism projects.
Naf and Sabrang have a potable water crisis, said Chowdhury. "We have identified two freshwater sources in Ukhia and consultants have been appointed to bring water from there"
He also said they have rainwater harvesting and desalination plans too.