Monday, September 7, 2015

The Dark Side of Our Hydropower Projects

The hydro-power dream merchants who are wont to put out the falsehood that the hydro-power projects are good for the country and the Dzongkhags where they are located may wish to consider the following:

Two of Bhutan’s earliest hydro-power projects - Chhukha and Tala hydro-projects are located in Chukha Dzongkhag. Phuentsholing, Bhutan’s foremost commercial hub is also located in this Dzongkhag, in addition to the fact that it is home to the country’s largest and most lucrative factories. And yet, official records point out that some of its gewogs record among the highest poverty incidences in the country. In fact, two of its gewogs have more than 50% of their population living in abject poverty.

Before the construction of Punasangchhu Hydropower Projects I & II were started, the government touted them as engines of growth that would bring untold riches to the national exchequer and the people in the Dzongkhags of Wangdue and Punakha. Townships were started; people were encouraged to build housing complexes to accommodate thousands of project workers that would be employed by these projects. Some were encouraged to buy trucks, while others were encouraged to invest in earth-moving equipment. Yet others started stone quarries and mines, in anticipation of the business opportunities that the projects would open up for the Bhutanese people.

Alas! Seven years since, the heartbreaking stories of tragedy and failure are coming to light. The cost overrun in these two projects will finally cross 400% of its initial estimate, when and if, the projects get completed. The project completion date has been pushed back time and again; incredible amounts of corruption have been uncovered, high degree of inefficiency has been noted and the impact to the local environment is a foregone conclusion! Humble people have lost their ancestral homes and fertile lands.

The national debt burden has exceeded our annual GDP; trucking companies have gone bust as a result of business being monopolized by the project contractors; three or more mining operators in the Punasangchhu area have been rendered bankrupt as a result of the creation of environment that espoused monopolistic trade practices; illegal operation of mines by outsiders have been authorized. Recently, the government was forced to close down a legitimate Bhutanese mining business and hand it over to illegal Indian operators.

Every day, dozens of trucks owned by the Indian project contractors ferry vegetables bought all the way from vendors in the neighboring Indian towns of Binaguri and Flakata, while local Bhutanese vegetable vendors are left clutching on to their empty baskets covered in dust and soot.

In a bid to ensure that the local Bhutanese business communities do not derive any benefits from the projects, the project authorities have built large housing complexes, while Bhutanese real estate in Wangdue and Punakha are in a perennial state of depression, as a result of their buildings going vacant.

Those of you who are protagonists of the hydro-power projects in Bhutan, please get off your high horses and come to the real world. Ask the truck owners how much they earn from ferrying project material from Phuentsholing to projects sites: they will tell you that they barely earn enough to pay off the interest on their truck loans. Ask the quarry owners who have gone bankrupt trying to make a break through in supplying stone and sand to the projects - they will tell you they have lost tens of millions and are now neck deep in debt.

Ask the Bhutanese cement factories how much they supply to these projects - they will tell you none!

Ask the steel mill owners in Pasakha how much steel they supply to these projects, they too will tell you that they have had to close shop because they couldn't sell any.

Ask the project authorities how many jobs they have given to the emerging educated youth - they will most likely dodge the question.

Ask them how many of the top management and decision making positions Bhutanese hold - and they will tell you the Bhutanese are not qualified.

Bhutan’s stake in the Punasangchhu II is 70% at 10% interest rate. Ask them who calls the shots and they will most likely look at you incredulously!

And still, after all this, my concern is not of the devastation caused to our environment. Those of you who talk of zero carbon footprint of our hydro-power projects, you know that you are lying through your teeth - particularly when you refer to Chamkhar Chhu project!

On the international front, we are facing grave loss of reputation and accountability. For a country that is seen to be at the forefront of environmental conservation, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO (in-charge of the Convention Concerning The Protection Of The World Cultural And Natural Heritage) has already notified us twice - once in 2012 and again in 2014 - to undertake an environmental impact assessment of the Mangdechhu hydro-electric project and that of Kurichhu project. Both times Bhutan failed to produce the papers - given the poor credentials of these projects. No doubt we will face similar requirements with respect to Punasangchhu I & II and other upcoming projects that are in the pipeline.

This is in itself an indication as to how badly we perform in the area of doing hydro-power projects with the least damage to the environment. Or why else would we hide our EIA reports for the past four years? Thus, those of you who keep harping that our projects do not cause environmental damage - please open your eyes - because there is some more bad news for you.

Our request for grant of CDM credits for Punasangchu hydroelectric projects was vehemently objected to by the International Rivers, based on a number of apparent flaws and falsehood associated with these projects. Their voluminous objections run into an incredible 9 pages!

However, my cause is still not that of environment because I know that when you have a gaping hole in your tummy, environment will not fill it. My cause is still the economic devastation that we are already suffering as a result of these hydro-power projects that have gone horribly wrong!

My cause is still about keeping at least one of our rivers free flowing - for the cause of our future generations. My cause is about bequeathing that river to the name of a giant of a man whose private angst at the destruction of the environment is well known.

Please support your own cause by signing at:

1 comment:

  1. Our government is very short-sighted. They talk more.