By Vishal Arora and Chinch Dema
The tiny nation of Bhutan might enjoy world renown for its environmental record, but it is overlooking concerns being raised by environmentalists over the country’s plans to construct large hydropower plants to generate 10,000 megawatts of surplus electricity for export to India.
Climate Action Tracker, an independent group, rated Bhutan’s pledged contribution to the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris as “sufficient,” a rating accorded to just five countries. Soon thereafter, the carbon comparator tool of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit praised Bhutan for being an unparalleled carbon sink, absorbing three times more carbon dioxide emissions than it produces.
A nation of about 750,000 people perched between India and China, Bhutan deserves the accolades. It measures national progress in terms of Gross National Happiness, a policy that seeks to balance economic growth and environmental conservation, and not Gross Domestic Product. Bhutan’s constitution mandates that its territory be at least 60 percent covered by forest.
The world’s only Mahayana Buddhist country, Bhutan also has huge tourism potential, but it restricts the number of tourist arrivals by imposing a mandatory tariff of $200 per person per day, a measure to protect its rich culture.
Meanwhile, Bhutan aspires to become a world leader in the use of electric vehicles and thereby reduce fossil fuel imports by 70 percent, as well as to make its agricultural system 100 percent organic by 2020.
However, 2020 is also the deadline for Bhutan to increase the generation of electricity from its current installed capacity of 1,400 MW to more than 10,000 MW. According to a 2009 protocol to a 2006 Bhutan-India agreement, New Delhi will provide grants and soft loans to Thimphu to produce 10,000 MW by 2020 and import all the surplus electricity.
Bhutan, a landlocked country with rugged mountainous terrain that is heavily dependent on India’s financial assistance, views its hydropower potential as the backbone of its economy. With its four major river systems, Bhutan has hydropower potential of about 30,000 MW, of which 24,000 MW is techno-economically feasible. Hydropower exports and infrastructure construction already constitute about 50 percent of Bhutan’s GDP, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Bhutan claims that all its hydropower plants are clean.
All projects in Bhutan are run-of-river and “good for [the] environment,” Economic Affairs Minister Norbu Wangchuk said. Bhutan’s export of electricity to India will make a “big contribution” towards mitigating global warming, he said, suggesting that India would otherwise have to burn fossil fuels.
“Presently, Bhutan offsets 4.4 million tons of CO2e through exports of hydroelectricity. In addition, Bhutan can offset up to 22.4 million tons of CO2e per year by 2025 in the region through the export of electricity from our clean hydropower projects,” said Bhutan in its pledge to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“Our rivers are in deep valleys, where minimal human settlements are found. Our hydropower projects are subject to stringent environmental standards,” Wangchuk said, claiming that the social and environmental cost of hydropower projects will be low.
The construction of a project involves temporary damage, Wangchuk argued, comparing it with “an eyesore.” He claimed “the nature returns to a status better than the original” after the construction, as the projects look after the sites on a regular basis. He called hydropower “the flagship project that balances ecology and economy.”
“Hydropower projects certainly harm the environment … both during and post construction,” Yeshey Dorji, an environmentalist and wildlife photographer in Bhutan, said.
Shripad Dharmadhikari, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology and formerly a full-time environment activist, agreed with Dorji. “Calling hydropower ‘clean’ is a misnomer,” he said. “We need to evaluate its entire impact on the ecosystem and communities.”
“Hydropower has huge impacts on the riverine ecology, both upstream and downstream, and on local communities,” added Dharmadhikari, who is a coordinator of India-based non-profit group Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, citing the Punatsangchhu project site in Bhutan as an example.
The site for two Punatsangchhu projects in Bhutan was one of the habitats of the endangered White Bellied Heron. Only about 200 birds remain globally, Dharmadhikari noted in a recent article. “The construction of the Punatsangchhu projects has further destroyed the habitat of the Heron, and pushed it – and its predators – into a much smaller area, endangering it further.”
If there are several hydropower projects in a cascade on a river, they can cause lasting damage to the river ecology and communities, he said, pointing out that excessive releases from the Kurichhu project severely impacted the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site, downstream in India in 2004.
And hydropower is not clean, Dharmadhikari added, explaining that several studies have shown that hydropower can emit greenhouse gases, mainly in the form of methane, which is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide, from decaying organic matter. It is also important to recognize the impact of climate change and melting glaciers on hydropower projects, and the safety risks created due to events like glacial lake outburst floods, particularly in the Himalayan region, he said.
Even so-called run-of-river projects generate power using dams and tunnels, which divert the flow of the river and impact the biodiversity of the river downstream, Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), said.
International financial institutions now accept hydropower as “clean” as a result of efforts being made by the hydropower lobby, added Thakkar.
The Indian government is also considering categorizing hydropower as renewable energy. In fact, the recent Paris Agreement seems to have accepted all sources of energy that do not require burning or fossil fuels as “clean,” overlooking safety concerns.
Hydropower can be a viable option, but only if certain conditions are met, activists say. And that’s a big “if.”
According to Thakkar, governments and industry players need to take decisions concerning hydropower in a democratic fashion with the involvement of local inhabitants, in terms of discussing compensations for displacement and other impacts. Transparency is equally important so that projects’ compliance with environmental and safety norms remain verifiable, he added.
But norms are generally not followed, Dharmadhikari said, pointing out that only one of the existing projects in Bhutan – the Kurichhu plant in Mongar – has a fish ladder, which allows migratory fish to travel to their breeding grounds. Reports of the ladder in operation are also not encouraging.
Local populations in Bhutan have already raised concerns, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi admitted in a speech in February 2015 in the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. “I know the people of Arunachal Pradesh have certain reservations about some hydel projects. There were similar issues in Bhutan and Nepal, which have as much water resources. We negotiated with them. We are trying to set up power companies there. Through electricity alone, Nepal and Bhutan’s economic condition will improve,” Modi was quoted as saying.
Bhutan’s media has also reported that the planned 540 MW Amochhu Reservoir Hydro Electric Project would displace the oldest indigenous community of Lhop or Doya people.
In Bhutan, “hydropower projects are implemented in complete secrecy and with the greatest of opacity,” Dorji said. “If there is nothing to hide, there is no need for such clandestine conduct. There are no proper EIA (environmental impact assessments) done, there are no environment management plans drawn up, there are no basin studies carried out to determine the carrying capacity of the basins and there are no cumulative impact assessments carried out,” he added. “In fact, people believe that even environmental clearances are not obtained for the projects.”
The parliament of Bhutan, which became a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008, is yet to approve a right to information bill, and journalists complain they can’t investigate government’s claims about hydropower. While Bhutan is known to be among the least corrupt nations in South Asia, the reason for secrecy, some suspect, could be due to the involvement of India and Indian companies in the hydropower projects.
Officials in Bhutan do not dare upset their counterparts in India, Bhutan’s largest trading partner. About 98 percent of Bhutan’s exports and 90 percent of its imports are with India. New Delhi reportedly insists that EIAs be done by WAPCOS, a consulting company under India’s Ministry of Water Resources, which has been accused of shoddy work and overcharging Bhutan, according to SANDRP.
Bhutan’s opposition leader, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, agreed that “there should have been better rationalization in terms of numbers (of hydropower projects) so that an acceptable compromise could be reached between economic needs and environmental concerns.” He called hydropower “a necessary evil” for a “resource-strapped country like Bhutan” to attain self-reliance.
However, Bhutan’s hydropower projects do not make much sense even economically, as they lead to heavy debt due to the loans that Thimphu needs to take out for their construction. Moreover, they result in mere quantitative growth without producing substantial number of jobs for Bhutanese people. Furthermore, since the electricity is sold exclusively to India, the resultant economic “self-reliance” wouldn’t mean much in terms of Bhutan’s sense of sovereignty. India’s dominance will remain, if not increase.
It would perhaps be better for Bhutan to continue developing its soft power by remaining a beacon in efforts to check global warming and in responsible business practices, and instead explore diversification as a way to boost its economy. If Thimphu does choose to go ahead with its hydropower plans, it should do so in a transparent manner, or risk its green reputation.
Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. He writes, and produces video features, on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights in South and Southeast Asia. Chencho Dema is a Bhutan-based journalist.