Hydropower threatening Bhutan’s environment

The engine of the Bhutanese economy – hydropower plants – are turning to be threat to the country’s ambitious plan of environmental conservation and remain carbon neutral. The fragile mountain terrains on which plants are built are to blame for this.

In 2008, the country started its marathon to build 10,000 megawatts of power through 12 hydropower dams by 2020. Long term plans include building 74 dams. The country failed to have made enough assessment of the environmental damage in the longer run. The signs are gradually coming out.

Multiple dams built for the hydropower plants wrecked river ecosystems, destabilized riverbeds, required the creation of access roads into once regarded wilderness. We have observed increased flash floods, flood havocs, loss of life and properties. The flood washed home to often indigenous people—something that requires costly relocation plans. The Punatsangchhu has been dragged for years due to unstable surface and continued landslides in the area dams is planned to be built.

Sankosh Dam requires unbridgeable 141-km canal into India’s Buxa Tiger Reserve and blasting and tunnelling for the Punatsangchhu projects have caused widespread environmental disruption to forests and river systems, and destroyed the habitats of the endangered white bellied heron and golden mahseer, a rare species of Himalayan carp.

Hydropower exports to India comprise 40 percent of exports and 25 percent of GDP. At that, the country taps only 6.5 percent of its potential.

The big question is whether Bhutan can sustain its dedication to environmental sustainability in the face of the hydropower construction. That answer is that so far, it seems to be holding up. Hydroelectric dams are massively disruptive to societies, probably all the more true of more traditional societies that still scrape together a living off the land. 

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