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Monday, November 3, 2008
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Sea border issue fails to grab govt focus

Bangladesh made negligible progress in delimiting its maritime boundary even though it took the initiative in 2004.

While the Bay of Bengal became the focus for oil and gas exploration by India and Myanmar, Bangladesh's move to mark its maritime boundary has so far been limited to "plans" to take expert help from the US, the UK and Australia for the job.

In 2004, the foreign ministry formed a committee with members from Petrobangla, Geological Survey of Bangladesh, the Navy, Spaarso, Inland Water Transport Authority and Surveyor of Bangladesh.

The purpose of this committee was to recommend how to mark the deep-sea territory fulfilling requirements of the UN and as per the law of the sea. However, the committee became dysfunctional within a year, while its foreign ministry members were busy making foreign trips.

All the while, both India and Myanmar are exploring oil and gas prospects in the Bay close to Bangladesh and sometimes even entering areas which could belong to Bangladesh. Myanmar discovered seven trillion cubic feet of gas in 2006 close to Bangladesh waters while India discovered 100 trillion cubic feet of gas and two billion barrels of oil.

On the other hand, Bangladesh is now in the process of awarding several deep-sea blocks and a shallow water block to two foreign oil companies amid protests from members of the committee to protect oil and gas resources.

The bidding process held in May also drew protest from India and Myanmar in June saying that Bangladesh's bid area overlaps their maritime regions.

Geologists believe that the Bangladeshi territory in the Bay holds the biggest oil and gas prospect.

Foreign ministry sources say that they believe the country is now exposed to a regional oil and gas politics it had never faced before. "This situation might prevail till the maritime boundary is fixed in 2011," said an official.

The Indian press reports that two main basins in the Bay--Krishna-Godavari and Mahanadi--have shown a potential of nearly 18 billion barrels of oil equivalent gas in place. While official sources quote a figure of 100 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in the region, unofficial estimates peg the reserves at 200 trillion cubic feet of gas.

In such a context, expert delegations of Bangladesh and with India held a three-day meeting after a gap of 28 years to settle unresolved maritime boundary issues. But this talk ended fruitlessly as it hovered around discussing boundary in South Talpatty, an island still in formation, in the south-western part of the country.

Foreign ministry held two rounds of talks in April and September with Myanmar and the discussions yielded "good results" regarding common usage of the Naf river and its estuary, official sources said.

But resolving the sea boundary issue is still long way down the road as Myanmar is asking for eco-distance system in East to West boundary while Bangladesh is asking to demarcate in equity basis North to South.

Bangladesh will hold maritime talks with Myanmar in mid-November and India later this month.

India and Myanmar need to finish the maritime demarcation with Bangladesh shortly as they are set to file their claim to the UN on June 29 and May 21 next year.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Bangladesh also has to file its claim within July 27, 2011.

International law allows each country to have and enjoy 200 nautical miles from its coast to the sea. However, this is a tricky matter as the coasts of India and Bangladesh and Myanmar follow a curve, which implies overlapping of territory.

As per the international practices, in such a case, the neighbours should inform each other and reach a mutual understanding before exploring such areas.

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