Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Final Post On Keeping Chamkhar Chhu Undammed and Free-flowing

Since the government has announced that they are unwilling to keep Chamkhar Chhu free of dams, this will be the last post I will do on the issue of keeping one of our rivers free of dams. As a concerned citizen, I have tried to do, what I believe, is best for the country and the people of Bhutan. The rest is now up to the King, the government and others who I know are as concerned as I am about the need to keep one river free of dams.

For me, this is the end of the road. However, for the cause .... one never knows. Life is full of surprises.

The following is the full version of the email interview KUENSEL did with me. While I will keep on writing on issues related to hydro-power, I will not write any further or give interviews on the issue relating to keeping one of our rivers undammed and free flowing.


As you might have read, the Prime Minister has said that the petition/debate is a decade late and should have been raised before the governments of Bhutan and India signed the Chamkhar Chhu agreement. How would you respond? 

Yes, I have read the Prime Minister’s statement to the press during the government’s 19th Meet-the-Press session.

I am a little aghast that the government should decide to slam the door in my face, even before I knocked on it. As far as I am concerned, I have not yet submitted my petition to the government. Infact, I did not think that it would be necessary to submit the compiled petition because I believed that they would surely understand and empathize with the profundity behind my plea to keep the Chamkhar Chhu undammed and free-flowing in order that the same can be bequeathed to the name of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in the year of His 60th Birth Anniversary. The government should not need a voluminous petition to do a worthy cause, should they believe that it is indeed a worthy cause.

I am aware of the existence of an agreement between Bhutan and India but that agreement is now untenable. According to the agreement, we are supposed to do 10,000 MW by end of 2020. We are nearing end of 2015 and not a single one of those ten projects have come on stream. In fact, six among them are still on the drawing board.

Unless Bhutan is under duress from India to do the Chamkhar Chhu Hydropower project specifically, I am sure that if a proposal is made to them, India will find it acceptable to choose another location from among 76 economically viable locations that have been identified under the 2004 Updated Bhutan Power System Plan. After all it is our hydro-power project and we should have the first and final say. We are not asking to curb the overall agreed generation - if that be their concern - merely that another location be selected in order that we can leave Chamkhar Chhu undammed and free flowing in eternity and bequeath it to our most deserving Monarch. I have no doubt that since India is coming under increased criticism from the international community given their environmental record, they will be equally recognized for partnering with Bhutan in our efforts at ecological and environmental conservation in a region that accounts for Asia’s largest fresh water supply.

It is never too late to correct a mistake. We all know and accept that this government was not a party to the hydro-power agreements of the past. However, feigning helplessness is not the way of a responsible government. The PDP government has been elected to be the chosen one, when the Bhutanese people pronounced their desire for a change in governance. If the same old policies are to be perpetuated, and same old mistakes continue to be made, how have the PDP government lived up to the people’s expectations?

Your plea that Bhutan should leave at least one river un-dammed, and the derivative arguments (economic benefits, environment) will go unheeded by the government. Are you still going to submit your petition to the government if you obtain 500 signatures? 

No, I won’t be doing that because, as I said earlier, I did not contemplate submitting the compiled petition to the government in the first place. That is why from day one, I disabled the button on the website that would have sent an E-mail to the Hon’ble Prime Minister - every time a supporter pressed the support button.

The government has been explicit that the Chamkhar Chhu project is a done deal and that there is no room for discussion. Regardless, it is my hope that the government will still leave open a small window of opening for reconsideration and recapitulation. That said, at the end of the day, should they decide not to, they are the government of the day and it is their call. It is not as if I am the only one that is concerned about this country’s future and well being. I know that there are others who are even more concerned than me.

However, it is sad that I did not hear a single one of our various environmental organizations voicing their concern at the devastation that is being caused to our environment. Not one of our many environmentalists have come foreword to publicly contest the false claims made by the political leadership and the hydro-power proponents that our dams are environmentally sound. Not one has refuted the falsehood that is being put out - that our dams will not emit green house gases such as Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide and Methane, the principal causes of global warming. Not one has challenged the lie that all our hydro-power projects are run-of-the-river projects. Not one of our many learned economists has spoken against the economic peril, the debt burden and outrageous interest rate charged on the loans and the unsustainable manner is which we do our hydro-power projects.

Your petition caused a lively debate within Bhutanese society and it seems public opinion is divided. You've failed to convince the government but are you in anyway satisfied about some of the outcomes of your petition? 

Frankly I know nothing about any outcome from this. However, I like the fact that my cause has sparked off a vigorous debate on the issue but those debates have been in the Facebook, where I am not.

I have pointed out nearly a dozen flaws in the way our hydro-power projects are done. The present government puts the blame on the past government, for the shamefully lopsided deal Bhutan got in the recent hydro-power projects. I will agree with that. However, it is hoped that this government will derive lessons from the past mistakes and do things differently.

I will be satisfied if some of the following emerge from these debates:

a.    The engagement of professional lawyers in going through the
      fine prints of the agreements before it is signed. From what
      we have seen happening in Punasangchhu I & II and
      perhaps even in Mangdechhu, it is evident that the negotiating
      team from Bhutan were sleep walking when they signed
      those hydro-power project agreements;

b.   That the government ensure that clauses in the
      agreements protect the interests of the Bhutanese
      business community and the local manufacturing industries;

c.    That further hydro-power projects is suspended - until
       all the projects currently in the pipeline are completed and
       fully commissioned because if we don't, I fear that
       our economic woes will be further compounded; and

d.    Ensure that all future DPRs are done professionally and
       then cross-checked by independent consultants to ensure
       that the studies have been carried out properly and that
       repeated geological surprises are not a norm.

Many from Kheng did not agree with your petition. Have their arguments in anyway softened your stance or thrown new light on your point of view? 

No - their arguments were complete nonstarters. In any event, when talking of a national level concern, localized issues are of no consequence. I am completely appalled at the assertion that the Chamkhar Chhu project will bring roads and schools and hospitals and electricity to Khengrig Namsum. There is something sinister about some of the Khenpas’ insistence, even while they are fully aware that this has not been the case in every single one of our earlier projects. They talk as if provision of these services is in the mandate of the project, thereby totally misleading innocent people.

By the way, I would like to once again reiterate that my intention was to keep one river undammed and free flowing, for future generations and, perhaps, for the reason that it may afford us an alternative to hydro-power. Chamkhar Chhu Hydropower project was furthest from my mind. For me it is a none-issue.

Are you planning to continue to petition against the dam? If yes, what comes next and why? 

Once again, I wasn't petitioning against any dams. I was appealing to keep one river free flowing - assign to nature what is rightfully nature’s.

No, I will not continue because the government has been categorical that they will not consider it. To continue in the face of such steadfast resistance from the all-powerful government would be nothing short of flogging a dead horse. The government has the people’s mandate and they are the ones who should be satisfied that they are performing their duties with sincerity and in good faith, as mandated by the people of Bhutan.

I, and my aspirations, are incidental.

Friday, September 25, 2015

One Decade Too Late? No, Two Decades Too Late!

The government had recently said that I am one decade too late in bringing up the issue of the need to keep one river free flowing. But it transpires that I am not one, but two decades late. The recommendation to keep one river basin free of hydropower was apparently included in the first Bhutan Power System Master Plan, prepared and submitted in early 90’s by a World Bank/NORAD Consultant. The Consultant in question, Mr. John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF, wrote me the following mail yesterday morning. I have his permission to publish his mail so that, hopefully, the government may reconsider their decision.



Hi Yeshey;

I was very interested to learn recently of your efforts to ensure consideration of relevant issues in Bhutan’s hydropower planning.

My hydropower-related service in Bhutan took place as follows:

1985-1988    Advisor, Planning Commission, RGOB

1988-1990    Himalayan Regional Programme Advisor
                     Water Resources Management and Environment,
                     UNDP, Kathmandu

1990-2004    Consultant on Development of Guidelines for
                     Hydropower Planning and Impact Assessment,
                     National Environmental Secretariat/Planning
                     Commission, RGOB

                     Deputy Project Manager, Bhutan Power System
                     Master Plan Studies, with responsibility for
                     environmental impact concerns/recommendations

                     Environmental Advisor, Mangde Chhu Hydropower
                     Project Feasibility Investigations.

In my work with RGOB, I strongly encouraged the early determination of those rivers and river basins to be designated for hydropower development, and those to be preserved for environmental, social, cultural, tourism, recreational and other objectives.

Similarly, it was recommended that hydropower development be concentrated in a small number of river basins, to limit the extent of the impacts and the expense of new infrastructure development required for projects far away from each other. It was expected that such a concentration of hydropower development along some rivers would enable other rivers to be conserved and protected.

These recommendations were made in the reports of the first Bhutan Hydropower System Master Plan so that the consideration could be done at an early stage, before significant investments and commitments would make such decisions more difficult.

So - you might understand my concern with the current situation - that there are projects existing, under construction or planned for all of Bhutan’s major rivers.  While I certainly understand the political, economic and financial benefits associated with these projects, and the desire to ensure that Bhutan benefits fully from its resources, I wonder whether the full costs - in terms of environmental, social, cultural, aesthetic and other impacts - are being properly considered.

Many of these impacts cannot really be mitigated - or even suitably compensated - and sometimes they are only recognized when it is too late. I am thinking, for example, of a number of hydropower dams in the USA that are being dismantled and taken out at a cost of many millions of dollars - because of the belated recognition of their impacts and the true value of the rivers in their undisturbed state.

I hope that you find these thoughts helpful, and that your efforts are successful to ensure consideration of the full range of relevant aspects which will have such important consequences for Bhutan and its coming generations of citizens. Please feel free to use these comments as you see fit, and it would be fine with me if you want to identify me by name.

I will close by sending you (and Bhutan!) my best wishes.


John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF

Gerstle & Co LLC
Email: john.gerstle@alum.mit.edu
Cellphone: 720-470-5408
920 Jasmine Circle
Boulder, Colorado 80304

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Dark Side of Our Hydropower Projects VII

My petition to allow the Chamkhar Chhu to remain undammed and free-flowing has been read around the world. An academician friend from the UK writes to me as follows:

Hi Yeshey,

I was very heartened to read your petition to keep Chamkhar Chhu free-flowing forever. It seems like one of the critical decisions that Bhutan faces in carrying out the promise and premise of GNH—an inflection point, so to speak. Very few nations still have the opportunity to shape their futures in such fundamental ways. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that Bhutan will make an enlightened choice? 

I was overwhelmed by the emotion and feeling that is resplendent in that short mail. In those four sentences, the friend managed to ask all the important questions that every Bhutanese will have to introspect and answer.

The questions are simple and yet fundamental.

How we decide on the issue I placed before the nation to decide will determine whether we ourselves believe in the promise and premise of GNH. If we dither or renege on the need to keep alteast one river free-flowing for the future generations to exploit this rare water resource in ways that may be more valuable than damming it for hydro-power, it will be a demonstration of the "inflection point" that the friend talks about.

As the friend points out, we are among the very few nations that still have the opportunity to shape our future in very fundamental ways. If we allow this opportunity to pass us by, saying sorry ten years down the line will be nothing more than spit on the sand.

And, everything hinges on the friend’s final question: will Bhutan make an enlightened choice?

Will we? I don't know but I am trying my damndest to convince you to make that enlightened choice. Because I believe that this generation has absolutely no right to exhaust every single water resource this country has, during our lifetime!

The decision to sink this country into debt and despair may not be yours but you might contribute to its salvation by signing at the following:

Another friend in New York sends me an SMS yesterday night asking:

“Didn't understand the first picture in your recent blog …. looks like domestic violence and so out of place with hydro-power….”

Abused and beaten black and blue

I explained to her thus:

The woman in the photo  personify Bhutan - hiding behind a glass curtain - abused and beaten black and blue and yet saying: “But he is sooooo good...!” The hapless and weak wife can do nothing but justify that her hydro-power husband is still good, regardless.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Dark Side Of Our Hydropower Projects VI

My petition has never been about hydropower projects. It has been about the need and the duty to fulfill the Constitutional requirement to ensure intergenerational equity with respect to our natural and environmental resources. It has been about keeping one river - Chamkhar Chhu, free-flowing for all times to come. It has been about bequeathing the river to the name of the most illustrious of our environmentalists - His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuk. If you believe in the cause, please sign the petition at:

 The state of affairs between Bhutan and its hydro-power projects

Some truly eloquent and learned Bhutanese experts have recently spoken and written on the economic bonanza that the hydro-power projects mean for Bhutan. This cacophony has been blistering my eardrums since the last four decades. And yet, after all that, we find that we are even more badly off than we were at the point of departure! Still, our experts insist that we must take the phenomenal cost escalations and devastating geological surprises in our stride, because they reason that, it is in the nature of the business. They also reason that the more than Nu. 100 billion hydro-power loans that is in excess of our entire GDP is inconsequential because they say that the hydro-power loans are “self-liquidating”. But for those of you who worry, look at the following:

Bhutan’s hydro-power projects have largely been perceived risk-free, and thus rapid hydro-power investment through heavy borrowing has not caused much concern until recently. Yet available information suggests that the sector’s financial performance has been deteriorating since 2007. The net profit (before tax) per unit of electricity sold has fallen sharply since 2007, driven by rising costs and declining revenue. The sector’s regular contribution to the budget has also declined for the past 10 years, from 6-8 percent of GDP during the early 2000s to 2.7 percent in 2011/12, notwithstanding the significantly increased electricity generation capacity. All this indicates that the sector’s “high commercial profitability” cannot be taken for granted. Should the hydropower sector’s financial performance continue to deteriorate, Bhutan’s solvency could be threatened. Although debt service costs are being borne by DGPC at present, after all, the hydropower debt is the government’s liabilities. The source of the performance deterioration has to be identified, and, remedial actions taken soon to avoid debt service difficulties.

Economic Policy and Debt Department
The World Bank

From the above, you can see that even the World Bank worries about our capacity to remain solvent, should our hydro-powers fail. This should be warning enough to convince us to go slow on our hydro-power projects, or face the consequences.

Sometime back, the BBS ran a cute little graphics that depicted our external debt as opposed to our GDP:

A report called,  ‘The New Debt Trap’ released by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a UK-based company has categorized Bhutan as a country with ‘high risk of government debt crisis’. The report lists Bhutan among 14 other nations that are fast heading towards a debt crisis.


TheBhutanese newspaper reported that Tata Power Trading Company (TPTC has a 15 years agreement with the Dagachhu Project to sell its electricity in India) was facing problems selling Dagachhu electricity at Nu. 2.90 in India. As opposed to that, according to Kuensel report, the cost of generation at the Punasangchhu has already touched Nu.4.00 per unit at 2017 figures. The project completion date has recently been pushed back to 2019 - meaning the cost will go up further.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Dark Side Of Our Hydropower Projects V

Full version of my interview appearing in the Business Bhutan issue of today (12th September, 2015):


1.    You have started a petition to stop the damming of Chamkharchhu, which basically is a petition
        against the upcoming hydro-power project along the river. Why? What are the tangible ecological
       benefits of keeping the Chamkharchhu river system free flowing?

On the outset, let me be categorical that my petition to leave the Chamkhar Chhu undammed and free-flowing is NOT against the Chamkhar Chhu Hydro-power Project. Further, I would also like to clarify that unlike what some would like others to believe, I am NOT against hydro-power projects. I am all for it, because it is correct that we must benefit from the substantial hydro-power potential that our river systems represent. Certainly, if planned and executed with foresight and the required degree of prudence, the hydro-power projects have the potential to be a game changer for us. However, beyond that, I am against every single aspect of the manner in which they are implementing our hydroy-power projects.

>  The pace at which the projects are implemented is wrong

>  The financing model is wrong

>  Given the unit rate at which we sell our power to India, the interest rate charged on the loan portion
     of the equity is wrong

>    Award of project contracts is wrong

>   Total denial of business opportunities to Bhutanese business houses is wrong

>    Wholesale import of construction material when the same are available in country is wrong

>     Selection and composition of management team is wrong

>     The disparity in the decision making process is wrong

>     The quality of DPR is wrong

>     Quality of construction is wrong

>     The opacity in the manner in which they conduct their business is wrong.

However, as I said, I am NOT petitioning the government because I am against the installation of a dam over the river for a hydropower project. Why would I be worried about one project when there are 76 planned all over the country? My cause is simply that Bhutan MUST leave at least one river undammed and free flowing in perpetuity. My reasons are twofold:

a.    First, in a situation where global warming is creating all sorts of fresh water scarcity, we cannot be so irresponsible as to dam every one of our rivers. All around the world, water is now recognized as the most valuable resource – even more than oil. This means that every passing year, our fresh waters will be more and more valuable - because other country’s fresh water reserves are on the decrease. Completely bewitched by the myth that hydropower will pave our roads in gold and that we will see untold riches as a result of it, the Bhutanese people have been lulled into a stupor, thereby robbing us of the need to be imaginative. Today the situation is so scary that should our hydropower fail us, we will be completely sunk! WE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO ALTERNATIVES. We have put all our dreams in the hydropower basket. We need alternatives and I believe that over time, our fresh water reserve has the potential to be one of the alternatives that we have to begin to pursue. That opportunity we must bequeath to our future generations.

b.    Second, the Bhutanese subjects are going helter-skelter trying to do something meaningful to honor our IVth Druk Gyalpo during His 60th Birth Anniversary. Gates are being constructed, avenues are being dug up to plant flowers in His honor; books and magazines are planned to be released on His Birth Anniversary; new songs are being composed, unique dances are being choreographed. But all these are short-lived and transient - to be forgotten within months after the celebrations. What we need to do is to do something that will be permanent and can be remembered till the end of eternity. That is the second reason why I am petitioning the government for the liberation of Chamkhar Chhu from dams so that we may bequeath it to the name of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. Such a gift would be everlasting, as it should be!

2.    A lot of work and planning has already gone into Chamkharchhu hydro project.
        Perhaps, there is little chance that government would agree to kill the hydro project at this stage.
        In hindsight, don’t you think the petition has come a tad late? Why now? 

According to the Updated Bhutan Power System Plan 2004, as many as 76 hydropower projects are planned around the country. Therefore, one less hydropower project isn’t going to make any significant dent in their overall scheme of things. No substantial work has yet been done on the project – other than the DPR that is still a work in progress. Therefore abandoning the project will not translate into any significant loss of money.

The petition is PERFECTLY TIMED - because there is no worthier cause for the petition, than that the river be spared in the name of a conservationist of unparalleled credential, and for the fulfillment of the inter-generational responsibility that is a Constitutional mandate of every Bhutanese.

3.    The Chamkharchhu issue has in a way triggered another development versus conservation debate.
       The Kheng region has been left behind for far too long and the hydropower project is seen as a potential
      savior that will uplift the quality of life in Kheng. What’s your view on this? 

That is wrong. It is not conservation versus development debate. I have said this already and I am saying it again - when you have a gaping hole in your tummy, environment isn’t going to fill it. I believe that under normal conditions, the cause of the environment cannot be the stumbling block for human development and progress. I am realistic enough to understand that conservation efforts will always play second fiddle to human greed and the modern economic order.

It is lame to say that Zhemgang Dzongkhag got left behind because no hydropower projects happened there. It got left behind because the government did not do enough; it suffered poverty and neglect because elected leaders did not deliver on their promises. You don't need a hydropower project to bring roads, schools, hospitals and electricity to the villages. Hydropower project is not a prerequisite to the provision of these basic services. If those have not been provided, it is a failure on the part of the government and the apathy of the elected leaders.

Look at Chhukha Dzongkhag, Punakha, Wangdue and Trongsa Dzongkhags. How have the villages benefited? How have the business community benefitted? I am amazed at the naivety of these people who claim that hydro-power projects will bring all sorts of development to the villages, even while facts stare them in their faces.

4.  As an environmental conservationist, you have strongly voiced your views against the perilous impact
     of hydropower construction, particularly Puna I & II, on the habitat of the critically endangered
    White Bellied Heron, including the impact of Shingkhar-Gorgan road construction on tiger habitat.
    Taking these two examples, do you think, the government has failed in upholding the environmental
     principles and policies that influence and inspire our development process?

Yes, the government failed miserably! To some extent I can empathize with the environmental disaster at the Puna I & II – I can believe that the government would have never imagined that it would go so horribly wrong. Unfortunately we have not yet seen the end of it. However, what irks me is their unwillingness to learn their lessons from these tragic mistakes. Despite the monumental losses of money and opportunity, the government is still in a huge rush to do more projects. Why can’t we wait for the projects in the pipeline to be finished and commissioned?

The issue of Shingkhar-Gorgan highway is something else. This one is the absolute height of irresponsibility and disregard for the country’s laws. The NEC and the WCD has been categorical that they will not issue the environmental clearance to do this road because the law in place prohibits it. The road makes no economic sense to any body. If this government goes ahead with this road, it will be a government that breaks laws. You can imagine the state of this country - when lawmakers turn lawbreakers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Dark Side Of Our Hydropower Projects IV

Why have our hydro-power projects gone so horribly wrong? I think the answer lies in history. Take a look at the following:

     Chhukha Hydropower Project
          Started : 1974
          Status   : Fully completed - 1988

     Kurichhu Hydropower Project
          Started : 1995
          Status   : Fully completed - 2002

     Basochhu Hydropower Project (done by the Austrians)
          Started : 1996
          Status   : Fully completed - 2004

     Tala Hydropower Project
          Started : 1999
          Status   : Fully completed - 2007

     Dagachhu Hydropower Project
          Started : 2009
          Status   : Completed - 2015

You can see a pattern up there. Start one project - finish it and then go to the next one. The project construction was nicely paced out - NO RUSH.

Then suddenly, as of 2008, all hell broke loose:

     Punasangchhu I
          Started : 2008
          Status   : Incomplete

     Punasangchhu II
          Staterted : 2010
          Status      : Incomplete

          Started : 2012
          Status   : Incomplete

          Started : 2015
          Status   : Incomplete

Without the need to go into too many technicalities, it is clear that we have to go back to the old wisdom: Do one project at a time. Do not sink the country into any further hydro-power debt and liability. Stop new hydro-power projects until the ones in the pipeline are completed and commissioned. Please show your support to this method of doing things at:

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Dark Side Of Our Hydropower Projects III

I am truly amazed by the arguments put forward by some Khengpas in defense of their support for damming the Chhamkhar Chhu for a hydro-power project on it. By the way, I am a Khengpa too. Despite a slew of reasons I offered to demonstrate that the projects do not benefit the common man in the vicinity of the projects and, going by recent examples, not even the nation, they still insist that Chhamkhar Chhu project will propel Khengrig Namsum to the top of the charts in terms of riches, once the project is done.

It is a dangerous thing to sell such proven unrealistic dreams to the poor unsuspecting Khengpas. Please do not mislead the people.

It has been argued that upon arrival of the project in the Kheng area, network of roads will be built, communications will improve, schools will be constructed and medical facilities will expand. HOW? What is the basis for this argument?

Why would the project entail the crisscrossing of the Khenrig Namsum with motor roads? For what purpose? Why would the project require roads outside its project area? Why would it need hospitals dotting the Kheng villages when it can do with one moderately equipped and staffed hospital at its project site? Why would it require the building of schools when all the workers in the project would be Indians and that too grown up people needing no schooling or already educated?

Why would the project be required to electrify far-flung villages in Khenrig Namsum?

Are the proponents of the project suggesting that the Chhamkhar Chhu Hydropower Project will be mandated to implement developmental activities in the Khenrig Namsum area, in addition to building hydro-power plant? If not, how would the project contribute to building these?

Is there a single incidence in the past where the hydro-power projects have built schools and hospitals and network of roads in the Dzongkhags where they are established?

If Khengrig Namsum continues to languish in poverty and neglect, it is the fault of the government. If developmental activities have failed to reach Khenrig Namsum, it is the failure on the part of the elected leaders to deliver their promises.

Just ask yourself this question: Why is the Chhukha NC Member still shedding tears of despair at the condition of her constituents - even after forty years of the start of the construction of Chhukha Hydropower Project in her Dzongkhag, in 1974?

It is not my contention that the hydro-power projects are not beneficial - they will be, provided they are done in the correct manner, provided the financing method changes from the present one, provided the project execution is done efficiently, provided the composition of the management team is chosen with care.

However, this is NOT about Chamkhar Chhu Hydropower Project - it is about leaving Chhamkhar Chhu free-flowing for the benefit of our future generations. If you believe that Bhutan needs at least one river without a dam over it, please sign at the following to show your support:

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Dark Side Of Our Hydropower Projects II

I am neither on FaceBook, nor on the Tweeter. Thus, I am not privy to the substance or the direction of discussions happening there - but I am told that a huge ruckus is being kicked up there. That is good - debates are important, so are contrarian views. The process of consensus building can only happen through healthy and frank discussions and active participation of the people.

However, contrary to what is being put out in the FaceBook and Tweeter, central to my drive for keeping one undammed and free flowing river is: the absolute and paramount need to preserve one free flowing river for the benefit of our future generations, and the ongoing economic devastation caused by our recent hydro-power projects. It has never been about the environmental destruction, although that too is a very, very pertinent issue. In order that there is no confusion, I would like to state categorically that:

1. there is no proof of the hydro-power projects ever benefiting the common man – neither
    the gewogs, nor the Dzongkhags where they are located. Instead they have contributed to social
    problems and loss of human habitat and livelihood.

2. The recent hydro-power projects have caused immense economic devastation resulting in
    strange problems the burden of which the common man has to shoulder. If you beleive that to be true,
     please sign the petition at:


Let me narrate two cases that will demonstrate why hydro-power projects have not contributed to the villagers in the vicinity and, why there is a need to seriously reconsider our hydro-power policy.

The case of the weeping MP 
Over tea yesterday evening at the Karma’s Coffee, I met a friend who told me that Ex-Member of the National Council of Chhukha Dzongkhag, Ms. Tshewang Lhamo, would cry tears of despair every time she returned from her visits to her constituency. She wept because she was powerless to do anything for the people of her constituency who elected her to represent them in the Upper House of the Parliament. She cried because majority of people in her constituency were living in abject poverty.

So what happened to all the riches that hydro-power projects are supposed to bring to the community in the vicinity of the projects? It is a myth - it has always been a myth and it will always remain a myth!

Strange case of fuel import and Rupee reserve depletion 
Last Friday, I was with three friends in Chubachhu area talking about the oft-repeated “Cost-Plus” and “Self-liquidating” loans for hydro-power projects. One of them told me something rather strange and unbelievable. He said that the funds for the Punasangchhu hydro-power projects are not routed through the Finance Ministry but released directly to the projects. I was aghast! How is that possible?

Then, by sheer coincidence, yesterday morning a friend sent me a SMS that read: “Do you know that 70% of the fuel imported by BOD is consumed by the Punasangchhu projects?” That was a shocker! If it is true, here then is a case of the Indian Rupee payment not getting credited to the government account but the government having to release to BOD Indian Rupees to import petroleum products from India.

Do you see the connection? Could it be that one reason that is contributing to Indian Rupee shortage could be because of this strange arrangement? And, by implication, do you now see why the current method of doing our hydro-power is bad for Bhutan?

Let us stop flaunting people and their cause as a means to further some unknown agenda. We all know that it will not be the common man who will reap any benefit from these ill conceived and poorly executed projects - but the rich, the powerful and the politicians that will derive the most benefit. The poor people will lose their land and their livelihood - because the rich and the powerful will buy off their ancestral homes and farmlands, when these projects happen.

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.

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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Our River of Hope

Ours has been a long, long journey of hope, and of optimism. Since the time the spark of hope was ignited in 1974 when the first agreement on hydro-power was signed between Bhutan and India, the dream merchants have never for once allowed the twinkle in ours eyes to dim nor optimism to wane. Two generations of Bhutanese remained hypnotized and mesmerized with promises of untold riches, of streets paved in gold and a life filled with luxury and abundance.

Until the bubble burst!

We have walked a million miles since 1974 - to arrive at the point of disaster that we were too trusting and naïve, to foretell or comprehend. Today, the hydro-power bubble has burst and our dreams remain dashed and hopes unfulfilled. We find ourselves straddled with hydro-power borrowings that is in excess of our entire GDP and yet, we still dare tread the quicksand of debt and disaster, with aplomb and gallantry!

Our leaders seem to draw solace from two magic words that they keep throwing at us - “Cost-Plus” and “Self-liquidating”. They must take us for complete dullards, or they are clueless about the mathematics behind those catch phrases.

Our young King the IVth Druk Gyalpo put the country on the road to progress, after less than two years of ascending the Golden Throne. He envisioned that the country’s enormous hydro-power potential should serve as the vehicle on which would ride His aspirations for His subjects’ and Kingdom’s progress and modernization. Forty years since, that vision lays trampled in the dust.

Most of our life-sustaining rivers are shackled with hydro-power dams, displacing humans and wildlife, as well as rare and unknown aquatic life forms.

Some of the dams that are planned and under construction are destined to create huge water bodies that will alter weather patterns and cause earthquakes, due to their location in seismically active zones.

There is clear and present danger of environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Unfavorable and inequitable terms of project execution have caused a number of Bhutanese businesses to fail. Even vegetable vending has been usurped by Indian project contractors thereby depriving Bhutanese of small business opportunities.

Hundreds of children born out of wedlock to Bhutanese mothers but fathered by Indian project workers, roam the streets - without census registration and without the right to schooling. Because our gender biased laws do not recognize Bhutanese mothers as worthy citizens, their offsprings are not recognized as natural citizens of Bhutan. Over time these stigmatized children will harden their attitudes towards the state that have rendered them stateless - and declared them persona non grata - resulting in fomenting of bitter resentment and indignation.

The Bhutan Power System Master Plan 2004 envisages 76 power projects while the Indian Central Electricity Authority clearly marks out 80 projects as demonstrated by the following map.

The implementation of the above plan clearly shows that we are going to dam every single one of our rivers. This is an irresponsibility of colossal proportions. We cannot do this to our future generations of Bhutanese who have every right to inherit what we have, from our forefathers. We have already burdened them with enough debt to last many life times.

To dam every single one of our rivers is perilous! Doing so will leave us with no reference point to go back to - for study in aquatic biodiversity and other scientific studies. We must have atleast one free flowing river - to serve as a conservatory for various known and unknown aquatic gene pool. We must, at any cost, leave one of our rivers free flowing in perpetuity.

And, I elect CHAMKHAR CHHU as that river.

I choose Chamkhar Chhu because as of now this is the only major river over which a dam has not yet been built. It is still free flowing. I am aware that a DPR has already been done to start a project on this river. However, we can afford to sacrifice the project for the sake of our children’s future. Let us not worry about the cost of the DPR that has already been spent. By the time the Punasangchhu I & II are done, we will have lost over Nu.100 billion. As opposed to that the cost of the DPR is small change.

Chamkhar Chhu has all the right credentials. Thus let us resolve to bequeath it to the giant among men - our IVth Druk Gyalpo His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck - the environmental champion without parallel.

Let us do so as a gift to Him on His 60th Birth Anniversary. Let it be a gift from a nation full of grateful subjects for His selfless service and for His dedication. If the nation and its people have resolved to do something during His Birth Anniversary, let that something be one that will endure for eternity. The free-flowing Chamkhar Chhu - from the base of Mt. Gangkhar Puensum to the estuary of Manas in the South - will be fitting validation of our gratitude to a King who has forsaken so much for the freedom, progress and contentment of His people.

The Chamkhar Chhu originates at the base of another giant - Mt. Gangkhar Puensum. It is Bhutan’s highest mountain and the world’s highest unclimbed peak. The river is host to a number of endangered species such as the Golden Mahseer and the Golden Langur, in addition to a large number of rare birds. The river runs through three national Parks: Wangchuck Centennial National Park, Thrumshingla National Park and finally through Royal Manas National Park.

The lake at the base of Mt. Gangkhar Puensum from where the Chamkhar Chhu starts

Chamkhar Chhu with Mt. Gangkhar Puensum in the background

Chamkhar Chhu sparkles in the early morning sun

Chamkhar Chhu flowing towards Chamkhar valley with Mt. Gangkhar Puensum rising imposingly in the background

Bequeathing Chamkhar Chhu as a gift to His Majesty the IVth Druk Gylapo would be worthy restitution to a monarch who has been selfless in his duty to His people and unequivocal in His stewardship of our environment.

If you believe that to be true, say yes to the dedication of Chamkhar Chu to His name and allowing its free flow until end of eternity. Sign a petition at the following:

I appeal to your sense of responsibility, your accountability and your sense of dedication, to honor our King with something that is more permanent and enduring - way beyond the erection of gates and planting of flowers. Let us go beyond lip service and the mundane, and come together in our resolve to do something more meaningful and befitting a person who has been boundless in his sacrifice for our country and us.

Let our appeal to the Druk Gyalpo and the government be our swansong - a final reminder to ourselves, that we cannot feign ignorance when finally, every single one of our rivers are dammed and environmental and financial disaster strikes us.

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