With several lakh unauthorised connections and thousands of kilometres of unsafe and illegal pipelines, gas distribution networks in the entire gas franchise in Bangladesh have become vulnerable to frequent fatal accidents.
For the absence of documentation, digital/automated mapping, and irregular leak testing gas distribution network in greater Dhaka Titas Franchise Area (TFA) including Narayanganj, Gazipur, Munshiganj and Manikganj has become extremely challenging to safely operate gas system operation.
Leaked gas trapped in confined spaces creates an explosive mixture which causes fatal accidents if it comes into contact with any spark. Several such accidents have happened in the distribution system causing loss of lives and property.
An investigation conducted three or four years ago revealed that around 200MMCFD had been pilfered from Titas gas system alone. Narayanganj, Gazipur and Tongi were identified as default regions.
Titas has a high-powered Board of Directors headed by the Energy Secretary. Unfortunately, neither the board nor the bureaucrat dominated Petrobangla came forward to arrest those involved.
The Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources took no notice of the incident. The prepaid meter installation programme did not pick momentum mainly due to a lack of drive from the Titas management.
High system loss through rampant theft and pilferage were masked through sky-high volumes of unmetered domestic connections.
All these benefitted the gas mafia syndicate. Now after a major accident at a mosque in Narayanganj that was caused by leakage in illegal gas connection, responsible persons are talking about unauthorised connections and pipelines. This has not happened beyond everyone's knowledge.
Experts observe that gas distribution networks urgently need GIS aided digital mapping, smart sensing for managing and monitoring leakages and unauthorised interference, telemetry and LIDAR technology.
They also suggest abandoning old connections in congested city areas and gradually phasing out pipeline gas supply to domestic, commercial and small industrial use and replacing these with LPG in a planned manner.
Many distribution pipelines constructed in the 1970s and 1980s have outlived their life expectancy. Moreover, the lack of regular maintenance created thousands of leakages.
A mafia syndicate of corrupt officials of the gas sector, contractors, political touts have provided few lakh of illegal gas connections mostly in TGTDCL, KGDCL, and BGDCL areas.
Not only unauthorised domestic connections but this syndicate also laid a few hundred kilometres of illegal pipelines for supplying gas to consumers. They are also involved in meter tampering and meter bypassing of industrial consumers. The government is not only losing revenues but also the system has developed a huge number of leakages.
The mafia syndicate is strong with the unholy alliance of the local political leadership and administration – that it has become almost impossible for junior level officials of regional offices to successfully implement disconnection drives.
On the other hand, it has been alleged that regular leakage surveys of distribution networks through injecting odorants are not also done which otherwise could identify leakages and deter unauthorised interferences.
The news of rampant illegal activities in Titas Franchise Area (TFA) has been regularly reported in print and electronic media. Even some intelligence agencies reported about 200MMCFD gas theft in the TFA.
The news of illegal gas connections in TFA and other areas of gas distribution franchise became an open secret since 2010.
But unfortunately, apart from carrying out occasional disconnection move, no coordinated drive was launched to eliminate unauthorised connections and illegally constructed unsafe gas distribution pipelines.
After the Narayanganj mosque accident, all out drive for locating illegal connections are surfacing scams in TFA, GFA and KFA.
Experts observe that if TGTDCL could complete setting up digital/automated mapping of its distribution network in early 2000, other distribution utilities could follow the systems which could monitor leakage and pilferage centrally and accidents could be avoided.
It must be accepted that illegal connection went out of control from 2011 after official suspension of gas connections to domestic consumers. Gas distribution works gradually went into the grab of a mafia syndicate of ruling party activists. Petrobangla and the distribution company boards became pleasure making transit destinations for EMRD admin-cadre officials.
The chosen persons of the mafia syndicate were placed in key positions of distribution companies. So, none cared to stem the rot. If an authentic investigation can be carried out on performances of Petrobangla Chairmen and Titas Gas Managing Directors from 2012 -2020 it will be proven that nothing had been done to arrest the corrupt officials involved in the gas theft over the years.
Bangladesh is now importing expensive LNG. It can let the present unprofessional management of gas utilities continuing. Now with the system almost going beyond control, the following can be done as soon as possible to stem the rot.
Carrying out extensive leakage surveys of distribution networks for identifying leakage and pilferages. This can be done through injecting a prescribed volume of odorant (Tetra Hydro Thiophene) in sections under test.
Arranging LPG supply to domestic, commercial, and other users in congested areas where there are old and dilapidated distribution pipelines in operation. There is no point spending huge money for replacing these pipelines as LPG can serve domestic and commercial consumers.
New distribution pipelines in new areas must be planned using Medium Density Polyethylene (MDPE) and fibre optics cables for smart sensing.
GIS, LIDAR technology should be used to develop digital/automated mapping for the smart operation of gas distribution.
All users should be brought under the prepaid metering system by 2023.
The present board of Petrobangla the distribution utilities should be reviewed and restructured with retired competent gas sector professionals, academic experts and business executives. Past professionals have institutional memories and can make commendable contributions.
Engineer Khondkar Abdus Saleque, former director (operation) GTCL, Petrobangla.