In January last year India celebrated it’s 50th anniversary of Diplomatic relations with Bhutan. In April this year, India and Bhutan signed Rs 4,500 crore Mangdechhu Hydro project’s power tariff protocol.

India and Bhutan hydro-electric power cooperation started more than five decades ago. In the beginning, the cooperation was based on the development of small-scale hydro projects such as Tala, Chukha and Kurichu. Then, a large share of Bhutan’s revenue comes from hydropower projects, although it has been declining over the years, from 44.6% in 2001 to 20% in 2013. Most of these hydropower projects have been developed in cooperation with India. Bhutan’s current hydropower capacity is 1,488 MW, although it aspires to make it 20,000 MW. Bhutan has the potential to generate 30,000 MW of hydro-power. Due to climate change all the rivers flowing from Bhutan to India have changed their behaviour dramatically in the last decade – with long periods of dryness, shallow flow and then repeated flash floods. This has caused hardships and misery to people on both sides of border.

Downstream communities in Assam have regularly raised the alarm, asking for changes to dam building upstream in Bhutan. They are worried that the plans to build more dams in Bhutan will lead to more flooding, erosion and more destruction than good. The Bhutanese government and their Indian dam consultants have dismissed these objections in the past, but the recent erratic weather patterns have upset all predictions and is now shaping the future flow of the river and Bhutan’s relationship with India.

In 2006, both countries inked a Power Purchase Agreement for thirty five years that would allow India to generate and import 5000 MW of hydro-power from Bhutan, the quantum of which increased to 10,000 MW in 2008.

Rising Concerns

On the other hand, the people of Bhutan raised objections to such projects on their long run effects in the country. And whenever Bhutan will decide to construct storage projects, issues will get intense and more problematic when it comes to dealing with India.

In spite of the enthusiasm of the two governments, many concerns regarding hydropower projects are coming to the fore. Firstly, the social and environmental impacts of the projects tend to pop up. Bhutan is a global leader in conservation practices, and has an amazing record of 52% of its land under its protected areas network. While this may protect Bhutan’s terrestrial bio-diversity, it isn’t sufficient to preserve its aquatic and riverine eco-systems. With large number of hydropower projects being planned in almost every river, and several projects in cascades in each basin, aquatic eco-systems will come under severe stress and threats.

Dumping of muck in and around rivers, submergence due to reservoirs, flow alterations, blockage of fish migration paths due to dams, rivers drying up below dams as water is diverted into tunnels, impacts of tunnelling on natural springs, debris and muck disposal, impacts of operating turbines for generating peaking power which will lead to extreme flow and water level fluctuations, all these are likely to impact aquatic eco-systems badly.

• Some impacts of the hydropower projects are also likely to be felt far downstream, in India. For example, excessive releases from the Kurichhu project had severely impacted the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site, downstream in India in 2004. In 2012, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO which is in-charge of the Convention Concerning The Protection Of The World Cultural And Natural Heritage noted that and then gave suggestions for the future projects.
• Another issue that is likely to become more and more significant in the coming years is the impact of climate change. Climate change is likely to impact the Himalayas more severely than other areas. With rapid melting of glaciers, river flows are likely to change. This will undermine the very basis on which the hydropower projects are being planned. Extreme events are likely to increase creating risks of higher floods and even dam safety. In case of Bhutan, the dangers posed by increasing frequency of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) are serious. GLOF events would increase the risk of catastrophic failures of dams and hydropower projects. Climate change is also likely to increase the sediment loads in the rivers, again impacting useful life of projects.

The internal challenge of Bhutan is water accessibility. Bhutan doesn’t have an answer to this. It also presents a challenge for modeling how Bhutan’s climate will change in the future. There were no accurate weather stations set up in country until 1995. So any climate predictions that are made, use global models, which lack the resolution to take Bhutan’s extreme geographical variation into account.
And even if there were clear solutions, that wouldn’t be enough: “The biggest challenge is the implementation—there are no resources,” Tenzin Wangmo, the Chief Climate Officer at the National Environmental Commission, explained frankly. “For example, if we had the capacity for accurate weather forecasts, we could know which crops have changed with the weather over time, and we could advise our farmers, but no research has been done on this. We do not have the capacity. So we cannot advise our farmers.”

The lack of people-power to build knowledge is felt in many aspects of Bhutanese life. Thus, the authorities believe supporting the development of the private sector could help solve some of their problems.
Struggling with a lack of capacity and knowledge is especially difficult when Bhutan is not responsible for climate change in the first place. As a carbon-negative country, Bhutan actually has enough tree cover to compensate for its own emissions. But most countries do not have this reputation. Bhutan’s neighbours are China and India, who rank first and third, respectively, in terms of country greenhouse gas emissions. But carbon has no border and Bhutan do not have adequate resources to adapt to the changes.

The Tug of Watery War

“We are a hydropower rich country,” stated the Director of the Department of Renewable Energy. In 2018, hydropower generation made up 13 percent of Bhutan’s GDP. The total GDP in 2017 was calculated to be 2.53 billion USD. From 2019, according to the Bhutanese authorities, hydropower generation will make up about 20 percent of the GDP with the commissioning of Mangdechhu.

The whole economy is dependent on hydropower, and climate change will definitely impact hydropower. That is what Bhutan worries about. As these worries mount, experts are talking about how to diversify Bhutan’s economy. The ministries responsible and their teams have assessed site for solar and wind projects, but with hydropower electricity being very cheap, it seems that these projects look more like a Plan B.

The logical next question then, is diversifying to what? There are ideas of more tourism, other industries, cryptocurrencies, but, Bhutan went on stressing on the fact that any diversification work that it does will need electricity and the only source they have today is hydropower.
With India breathing down Bhutan’s back for more energy and Bhutan struggling to repay debts, many find it difficult to see a way forward that isn’t hydropower. Bhutan needs the revenue, if the country hopes to graduate from the UN’s Least Developed Country status by 2023.