Bhutan’s Picture Of Gross National Happiness Blurs

Mar 11th, 2013 | By | Category: Bhutan, Capacity Development, Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Energy, Environment, Governance, Hydropower, International Agencies, Land, Lessons, Population, Resilience, River, Vulnerability, Water
Wangdue, project site of the Punatsangchu I Hydropower Project Photo courtesy of Ritwick Dutta

Wangdue, project site of the Punatsangchu I Hydropower Project
Photo courtesy of Ritwick Dutta

IRN: Bhutan fires the imagination of an ideal mountain country with many snow-clad peaks, where people go about their daily chores in serenity, dressed in their national dress, wearing a smile and with a song on their lips. The image of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) that it portrays is ever present. The four pillars of the GNH are Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development, Conservation of the Environment, Preservation and Promotion of Culture and Good Governance. It was with these expectations that I made my first visit to Bhutan recently, to find out more about Bhutan’s hydropower plans. I returned with some memorable experiences and apprehensions of Bhutan’s future – of its GNH.

The taxi driver smiled most of the drive from the airport in Paro to Thimphu, the capital. He stopped to refill his water bottle at a spring, give a ride to a local schoolteacher, stopped to buy doma (betel nut leaf with lime and half an areca nut), and chatted with other drivers on the way. He was a picture of happiness, of a slow relaxed life. Even the policeman understood when he stopped the taxi in a no parking area to buy doma.

In contrast, bureaucrats, elected representatives, consultants to the Royal Government of Bhutan and NGOs were all extremely busy either traveling or in long meetings. But they did all make time to meet with me, at relatively short notice. They were clearly responsive and bureaucrats immediately responded to subsequent emails. This was refreshing when compared to Indian bureaucrats who seldom, if ever, respond.

All were clear that Bhutan’s economic growth depends on hydropower, that hydropower is here to stay. But none acknowledged the negative impacts of dams. Nor was there an acknowledgement that not all factors, including climate change and GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods), have been considered while deciding to exploit the nation’s hydropower potential. In this, it is evident that Bhutan is a nascent democracy. People are neither accustomed to nor confident enough to oppose their government’s plans. As of today there is not a sufficient NGO voice responding to the government’s plans. There are only a few environmental NGOs in the country and the government supports all of them. If there were more independent environmental NGOs, perhaps louder voices would have been heard against the two Punatsangchhu hydropower projects. But this is likely to change as in 2007 Bhutan passed the Civil Society Organizations Act to permit establishment and registration of CSOs.

The two Punatsangchhu projects would destroy the habitat of about 20 White Bellied Heron, which account for roughly 10% of the world’s population. They are a critically endangered species as per the 2007 IUCN Red List, with only about 200 of them in the world. There has been no loud local opposition to the project on this or any other grounds, nor have there been objections raised by IUCN or other global wildlife NGOs. Perhaps they were not aware. However it may not yet be too late as only the coffer dam of Punatsanchhu-I and some tunnels of the 1,200 MW Punatsanchhu-I and 990 MW Punatsanchhu-II have been constructed. For example, an international discourse could be initiated on how Bhutan can be compensated for protecting the habitat of a globally critically endangered species.

Everyone including bureaucrats, elected representatives and NGOs are aware that the projects will result in the destruction of the White Bellied Heron’s habitat. One elected representative said that Bhutan would not develop the dams if it were given the money not to. However he had no reply to the question of why some other dam could not have been selected instead. Bhutan’s commitment to India is for 10,000 MW by 2020 and its hydropower potential as per the Power System Master Plan is estimated at 30,000 MW. Can Bhutan not assess which project will have the least impacts and develop those?

While an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process exists in Bhutan, it still needs to evolve. The National Environment Commission screens projects and decides whether or not a project needs an EIA report and public hearings. The criteria for this decision are not clear. No one in civil society organizations has seen EIA reports of these two projects and queries to bureaucrats as to whether or not the EIAs exist remain unanswered. Public consultations and meetings under the EIA process are carried out by the project proponent, and are generally restricted to project proponents meeting select individuals in the affected areas. The Government holds no public consultations and meetings. It is not clear how Bhutan can hope to avoid the usual environmental problems unless EIAs are made mandatory for all large-scale projects, including dams, shared with the public, public consultations and meetings held and interests of local people safeguarded. This needs to be done especially in light of the fact that access to information is a constitutional right in Bhutan. Perhaps Bhutan can refer to India’s EIA regulations (which, on paper, are good) and improve on its drawbacks and on its implementation in India.


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 MW. It has an installed capacity of 1,480 MW. The rest along with the 10,000 MW 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 constructions of the Punatsangchhu projects, what has happened with 4,060 MW Sankosh project and what will happen with the 570 MW Amochhu Reservoir project. The Sankosh project will submerge the lands of 13 villages in its 52 km (32.5 mile) 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 Government decided rates for the land, not the market price, as in India. In case of land for land compensation, one affected person at Punatsangchhu-I was given uncultivable land 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 km (18.75 mile) 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. It is between Thimphu and Wangdue, the project site. Widening of the road through the Park for transport of machinery to 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 m (13,123 feet), 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.

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 in 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 MW of the planned 10,000 MW. 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 MW run of the river project. It has now been turned into a 2,640 MW reservoir project with 30 km (18.75 mile) long reservoirs in both the Kuri and Gongri rivers. Unlike India which has an energy mix, Bhutan is putting 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 MW project on the Amocchu, which is over and above the identified 10,000 MW.

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 in Punakha, the second oldest 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 6 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 the 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 on-going 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.



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