November 01, 2016
Bhutan is highly dependent on India in many respects, especially for exploiting its hydropower potential. India is providing a combination of grants and soft loans to Bhutan for developing its hydropower potential. Bhutan’s power requirement is 300 megawatts. It has an installed capacity of 1,480 megawatts. The rest along with the 10,000 megawatts to be developed by 2020 is for export to India.
Ecology, environment and social costs do not appear to be given sufficient consideration. This is evident from the construction of the Punatsangchhu projects, what has happened with the 4,060-megawatt Sankosh project and what will happen with the 570-megawatt Amochhu Reservoir project. The Sankosh project will submerge the lands of 13 villages in its 52 kilometre-long reservoir. There were murmurs of protests from the local inhabitants. The prime minister visited the area with some other ministers.
The result is that people have agreed to the project. Whether the people of this young democracy would have the wherewithal to directly oppose a project to the prime minister and other ministers is debatable. Furthermore, the compensation packages have yet to mature. Those whose lands are affected are paid rates decided by the government for the land, not the market price, as in India. In the case of land for land compensation, one affected person at Punatsangchhu-I was given uncultivable land in exchange for his cultivated land without any further compensation for future loss of income. While the general impression is that Bhutan cherishes its culture and heritage, the 30-kilometre long reservoir of Amochhu project will submerge all three villages of the Lhops or Doyas who are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the country.
With Indian presence as strong as it is, one sees the same problems in the construction of the dams that one sees in India. Debris is dumped down forested hill slopes, into the river course, the gabion walls constructed to retain the debris from sliding into the river have collapsed, and the list goes on. Even the Royal Botanical Park has not been spared. Widening of the road through the park for transport of machinery to the dam project sites has resulted in ecological destruction. This is the only park in the world where the snow leopard, leopard and tiger can be found. Recently tigers were recorded at elevations of over 4,000 metres, where tigers were not thought to exist.
Ironically, the first signboard on Gross National Happiness (GNH) that I encountered was at the Punatsangchhu-II project site. The board states that the four pillars of GNH are equitable socio-economic development, good governance, preservation of culture, and preservation and enhancement of environment. In the background of the board is blatant ecological destruction due to the construction of the dam.
Learning from India’s mistakes
It is clear that Bhutan’s hydropower plans are dominated by India. Bhutan is making the same mistakes as India. It is also succumbing to developing a cascade of dams. Cumulative impacts are not being studied. Four dams are planned in a cascade along one river, two for Punatsangchhu and two for Sankosh. There is practically no stretch of free flowing river between the tailrace of Punatsangchhu-I and the reservoir of Punatsanchhu-II. This one river is to generate 6,250 megawatts of the planned 10,000 megwatts. Though it does not appear on any publicly available document, there are murmurs of Punatsangchhu-III being planned downstream of the second dam.
The Kuri-Gongri project, at the confluence of the Kuri and Gongri rivers, was planned as a 1,800-megawatt run of the river project. It has now been turned into a 2,640 megawatt reservoir project with 30 kilometre long reservoirs in both the Kuri and Gongri rivers. Unlike India which has an energy mix, Bhutan has put too many eggs in one basket – hydropower. India views Bhutan as its energy storehouse, like it does its northeast. The Indian State of West Bengal is also eyeing Bhutan for a 550 megwatt project on the Amocchu, which is over and above the identified 10,000 megawatts.
Like India, Bhutan is not considering the likely impacts of climate change in its hydropower plans. It is said that this year there was insufficient water in the rivers; evidence of the impacts of climate change?
Bhutan is even ignoring the imminent threat of GLOFs, especially on the Punatsangchhu. Phochhu (father river) and Mochhu (mother river) meet at Punakha, a few kilometres upstream of the dams, and form the Punatsangchhu. Several GLOFs on Phochhu and Mochhu have been recorded in the last about 50 years. The GLOFs have destroyed parts of the Dzong (a fortress monastery) in Punakha, the second oldest dzong in Bhutan and the place where every new King is crowned and the country’s chief abbott ordained. This Dzong is also the home of the Chief Abbot for six months of the year. (Dzongs were originally fortresses for the people to retreat to in times of war. They are now part monastery and part administrative offices of the region.)
While India has moved from prescribing one uniform minimum flow from dams throughout the year to three flow regimes – one for the lean season, one for the monsoon season and one for the other months of the year – Bhutan stipulates only 10% of lean season flow throughout the year. This is not sufficient for maintaining the ecological integrity of the river ecosystem.
Bhutan’s first Hydropower Master Plan was prepared in the 1990s. The recommendations included public access to information and leaving at least one river without dams and in a free flowing state. Neither of these recommendations have been put into practice.
Apart from hydropower, other developments are also of concern. Apparently riverbed mining is not permitted, yet tens of trucks line up every day on the banks of the Punatsangchhu in Punakha to feed the growing construction industry. The mining is having a negative impact on the habitat of the ruddy shelduck.
One of the four pillars of GNH is preservation and enhancement of environment. The trend of developments shakes this pillar. Another pillar is good governance. The ongoing developments, lack of transparency and access to information puts this pillar too on shaky grounds. With two of the four pillars of GNH on shaky grounds, the jury is out on the future of Bhutan’s GNH.
Samir Mehta is South Asia programme director at International Rivers.
Photos courtesy of Ritwick Dutta,