Friday, July 14, 2017

Bury The Burial Grounds - I

I was on my way to Nimshong village in Zhemgang where Rotary Club of Thimphu is implementing a 7-KMs long solar fencing project. Upon reaching Gelephu I was told that road to Zhemgang was blocked at 2-3 places, due to which vehicular traffic was suspended for the coming few days. So I turned back for Thimphu.

Upon reaching the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Project-II (PHEP-II) project area in Wangduephodrang (on 10th July, 2017), I saw a most appalling sight: the project’s cofferdam was overflowing with water. Apparently the cofferdam could not contain the massive amount of water that was flowing into it, caused by the recent incessant rains. It was clear that the size of the only diversion tunnel was not designed to handle the discharge of so much water, causing excess water to spill over the cofferdam’s barriers, into the dam foundation construction site.

A similar incidence had occurred at the PHEP-I last year, causing many months of delay in dam construction work, including hundreds of millions in additional costs, for excavation of debris and cleanup work at the dam site. And, unless additional diversion tunnels are built, or something else is done, this problem is likely to reoccur next year as well, and year after next.

How did it happen that these mammoth projects were so poorly conceived, designed and located? Who takes onus for this incredibly shoddy work? Are there any technically and commercially qualified people overseeing the construction of these two projects, whose costs, individually, will be in excess of the country’s entire annual GDP? How can projects this size have financial and Geo-technical miscalculations at the scale that is now becoming evident?

These are perplexing questions that will have to be answered one day, although for now, they must remain mute. That said, we are clearly past that stage when we scratch our heads in consternation and wonder where, what went wrong. For the Bhutanese, it is clear that these projects are nothing more than graveyards into which we must now put to rest our failed hydropower dreams. For India too, they have to accept that as rich as they are, over the long haul, it would be too expensive and an unnecessary act of bravado - with no meaningful returns to gloat over - neither financial nor political, or diplomatic. On the other hand the financial burden would be too great and, simply, meaningless and unjustified.

But for Bhutan, it would be simply, and irreversibly, crippling!

In my view, there is no other way out for the two governments – but to come together and take the painful, but necessary decision. It would be hugely stupid to postpone it any further. For both partners - India and Bhutan - sooner would be less dear.

The Governments of Bhutan and India must get together and take the only sensible decision they can:


If we don't, market forces will do it for us. Failing that, nature will do it for us. And, if that day should come, I can guarantee you that there will be no hole big enough to fit all of our close to one and a half billion heads to hide in, in shame and regret.

There is no complex science involved here - merely the issue of money and nature. India has control over one of them - money. But they are powerless over the other more powerful factor - nature. Bhutan, unfortunately, neither has power, nor control over either of them.

.................. to be continued


  1. As the saying goes, " no use crying over spilt milk" these generation of perplex situation had to be seen beforehand but for reasons best known to the brains who conceptualised these projects, they left these out for a first hand experience and experiment. We can only pray that instead of billions of debt the project will be completed and add a little to the GPHG.

  2. The glory days of hydropower as "White Gold" are gone now. I often travel to Tsirang along that stretch of the highway and cannot imagine PHPA1 finishing on time, yet again. Maybe there are technicalities that I do not understand but I still see them dredging/drilling.

    In spite of the blooming failures of these projects, our biggest enemies are within. Our bureaucrats and politicians continue selling such mega projects as the key to not only national, but also local, economic salvation. Sadly, we still continue to dive into this bottomless pit, and even emerge with new economic concepts to justify these mammoth borrowings. Every politician considers it a success for pushing the early implementation of such projects in their constituency. Instead of getting to the bottom of the PHPA projects, parliament is more engrossed with didcussions on expediting the Chamkhar Chu project.

    For good or bad, the World Bank and the ADB also want to get on the bandwagon. Their access is still limited right now. My advice to them would be to encourage the government and fund an independent review of our hydropower policy. While we pride ourselves for having environmentally friendly run-off-the-river projects, it will be an eye opener to see the plethora of negative impacts that these projects bring; foremost amongst them our infinite dependence on India.

    By biggest fear is the PHPA projects turning into another Damchu bypass story. What do we do then when we are held ransom yet again. I think it is time for the government to engage in some serious dialogue instead of putting our hands deeper into our neighbor's pockets.

  3. GOI has the onus to not burden RGOB any further. The cost escalations are ruining Bhutan as we have to bear 40% of the total cost as loan at a high interest rate. Cost + tariff is not going to work at all by the completion of the Project.
    What went wrong and who all did not live to expectations?
    The first person that comes to my mind is Khazanchi. After doing a below average job in Tala Project, both governments compete to praise him after completion of the Tala Project to be civilized and this praise slowly catapults the government to choose him as the Top man for PHPAs. The pitching for the choice of shifting the PHPA1 dam is the first colossal mistake he made and that bad choice is the beginning of all woes and we still consider him the leader in Hydro Power Projects.
    The second person that comes to mind is previous MoEA Minister Khandu Wangchuk for his failure to control Khazanchi and take hard decisions. This is followed by his successor Norbu Wangchuk, who had no ideas or abilities except oratory skills. The burden now is on Lekey Dorji but he will run out of time.
    We have come to a situation, closing down is not an option. But we need to discuss seriously of loan component. interest rate and tariff. As mentioned in the beginning, the onus is on GoI for a project badly executed by its Top Executive, experts, contractors, etc