Friday, March 31, 2017

Curious Numbers

Our government and public officials are putting out alarming numbers, surrounding our hydro-power projects.

The Kuensel says Bhutan earned Nu.13.03 billion from export of electricity, during the year 2016.

As opposed to that, Lyonpo Leki, Economic Affairs Minister says that the combined loss from the two PHEPE projects amount to a whopping Nu. 38.00 billion, for every year the projects are delayed.

The revenue loss from these two projects is almost three times the revenue we earned from export of electricity. So the question I asked in my last post is still valid:

How much more loss do we need?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

India is Now a Net Exporter of Electricity

The supposedly power hungry India is now a net exporter of electricity, according to a report released by their Ministry of Power. Even more surprising, they exported 213 million units more electricity than they imported from Bhutan.
As I said in one of my earlier posts, India’s import of electricity from Bhutan is inconsequential - we account for less than nothing. Our export of electricity to India is nothing more than a pesky cud lodged in the cavity of India’s gargantuan jaw.

Finally I hope that the Bhutanese people will come to accept what has always been the truth - that India has NEVER been dependent on Bhutan, for their electricity needs.

We are now in a precarious situation: India is already self sufficient in electricity and may no longer need our electricity at exorbitant Cost+ rates. On the other hand, our PHEP I & II, according to our Economic Affairs Minister, is losing Nu.21.00 and Nu.17.00 billion each, for every year the projects are delayed. Even worst, the PHPE I may have to be scrapped altogether, once the Norwegian experts submit their investigation report.

So, we still want to do Chamkhar Chhu?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Perfect Bowls for Particulates!

Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdue, Haa and Bumthang – all of these towns and cities are natural bowls in which high levels of particulates remain trapped and suspended. Unlike in the plains where the pollution is dispersed by wind activity, high mountains that box in our valleys do not permit air circulation – preventing both vertical and horizontal mixing of polluted air with that of clean air in the upper atmosphere.

Thimphu valley:  enveloped by trapped and suspended particulates; as seen from Phajoding

During the winter months, temperature inversions trap tiny particles of smoke and exhaust from cars, trucks, bukharis, and anything else that burn fuel - whether fossil or otherwise. This keeps the pollution close to the ground - right where the precious Drukpas are breathing.

When we begin to have pollution problems in our valleys, remember the problem will be 20-30 times worst than those in the plains.

Now is the time to act - to ensure that we cause the least bit of pollution. If we do not act responsibly now, in less than 10 years, we will lose what we have.

 Thimphu's breathtaking pristine atmosphere early this year (2017)

 Scenes such as above will be a thing of the past.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

World Bank: Water will become the most sought-after natural resource

Already, 1 in 9 people worldwide do not have access to safe, clean drinking water.

A report released by the UNICEF yesterday says that approximately 1 in 4 children worldwide will live in regions with extremely scarce water resource by 2040.

Based on current trends, studies indicate that demand for water will increase 50% by the year 2030 - for industry, energy, farming and to quench the thirsts of additional one billion people.

According to the World Bank, water will become the most sought-after natural resource over which wars are bound to be fought.

The 2017 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report, entitled "Wastewater: The Untapped Resource" says;

"Noteworthy is that about 50 per cent of the people facing this level of water scarcity live in China and India".

 If all these seem bleak and foreboding, consider this:


It is clear beyond doubt that WATER is going to be the most critical natural resource of the future. We need to do everything we can to protect and safeguard it, for our own future and for those of our children.

The as yet unshackled Chamkharchhu flowing through the Jakar valley. The government has recently announced that this beautiful river too will be subjected to hydro-power bondage.

We have to stop looking at our rivers only as energy source for driving hydro-power turbines. Our rivers are obviously destined for great things in the future. Water in its natural form could one day represent the single largest revenue generator for our country.

But first, we have to stop pawning off our rivers as collaterals for hydro-power projects. It is insane to do so. It is already very clear where our hydro-power projects are leading us. We all know how it works – when we cannot repay the loan, the collateral gets seized. You lose control over it.

We need to be realistic and educated. We are working on the assumption that India is an infinite market for our electricity. We are so wrong! India is already almost self sufficient in electricity. Take a look at the following to understand how India is making progress in generation of electricity.

Mr. John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF, a consultant who worked on our “Development of Guidelines for Hydropower Planning and Impact Assessment”, in the 90’s wrote to me as follows:

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.

There is much wisdom here. We cannot subject all of our rivers to eternal bondage - let us leave one or two of them free of hydro-power dams. We are not making any money from our hydro-power projects - so the question to ask would be:

How much more debt do we need?

Friday, March 17, 2017

New Zealand Steals Bhutan’s Thunder

In a world first, New Zealand recently accorded a river the status of a living entity. This Whanganui river in New Zealand is now protected under law, from all harm and abuse, in any form, same as that of a human being.

New Zealand is a country that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its 2015 Annual Report ranked the lowest environmental performer, among its 35 member states. And yet, they have done what no other country in the world has so far done - given a river the respect and recognition it deserves.

By contrast, Bhutan, despite being the land of GNH, a champion of environmental conservation, a recipient of the Champion of Earth Award and the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership, and a self professed carbon negative country, has failed to protect even a single river from being shackled, for economic enslavement. Despite disasters such as PHEP I & II staring right into our faces, Bhutan still pursues hydro-power projects with the single minded determination of a fanatical lunatic.

Recently the Kuensel announced that we are now undertaking DPRs for a series of hydro-power projects to be started on the as yet unshackled Chamkhar Chhu. And this despite our plea that the river that forms the mighty Drangme Chhu river system, should be left undammed and free-flowing, for the benefit of our future generations.

 Chamkhar Chhu that flows from the base of Bhutan's highest peak - Gangkhar Puensum

Chamkhar Chhu glistening in the morning sun as it makes it journey to the south. The river originates at the base of the world's highest unclimbed peak - Mt. Gangkhar Puensum (7,570 Mtrs.)

People fail to understand, or they are deliberately ignoring the disastrous implications, both environmental and financial, of damming all of our rivers for hydro-power projects. As far as I can conceive, doing so will be very expensive for the country and the future generations of Bhutan. In fact it will be annihilating!

To explain in plain simple language, it is like taking a huge loan to do a project - say hydro-power. As we go along, the project encounters problems such as mismanagement, corruption, miscalculations, geological surprises, shear zones and shifting tectonic plates. The project cost spirals out of control. Interest mounts and the project completion date is deferred time and again. Over time the project is simply undoable. But by then we are straddled with huge loans that we are unable to service.

What do we do? Our interest on the loan keeps compounding - the pay back period of the loan is readjusted to extend into the next millennia …. The loan’s collateral - our rivers - remain shackled and bound, and we, its masters, are powerless to do with it what we want to do, until the loans are repaid in full!

Our enslavement, and that of the rivers, is complete and total!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Journey of Self Destruction

Bhutan’s most dependable factories of debt – the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Projects-I & II – are once again in the news. In their latest issue, TheBhutanese newspaper reports that the estimated completion dates of these two disasters have been further pushed back to 2019 and 2022.

It is simply appalling – the level of absurdity of the project authorities and the governments of Bhutan and India. I think it is clear that these projects will not happen – not even in 2040 – at least not the PHEP-I! The project authority’s attempts at besting nature is quite laughable, and futile at best.

But something encouraging that TheBhutanese reports is that the authorities have finally agreed to seek a second opinion - from the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute. This is encouraging news. This is what I had written on February 19, 2015:

Thus, while we must ensure that WAPCOS is barred from future involvement in our hydro power projects based on their terrible record so far, we should now look at engaging consultants from third countries to investigate if the geological make of the Punatsangchhu areas is suitable for large hydro power projects. Through the engagement of better qualified consultants, we should ascertain whether it is wise to continue with the projects - or scrap it, to prevent further losses.

I am now encouraged to believe that the PHEP-I will finally be scrapped.

My New Year Wish during February, 2015 was as follows:

I WISH that the two governments of Bhutan and India would get together and take the only sensible decision they can - a decision to abandon the Punatsangchu Hydropower Projects.

Last year too, I wished the same:

First on the list of my wishes for the year is the reiteration of my last year’s wish: closure of the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-I. As bizarre and fantastic as it may sound, I believe that this is the only way out to avoid irredeemable loss - both environmental as well as financial. The fallout from the failure of this dam is simply inconceivable. Such an eventuality could be the cause of the end of Bhutan’s hydro-power dreams.

The cost of one of these projects is in excess of the country’s entire annual GDP. And from all indications, they are going to fail. Bhutan cannot afford this. What this generation is doing is highly irresponsible – we are sealing the fates of our future generations. In our pursuit of a pipe dream, we are assigning our children to a life of economic bondage.

As I said in my last post on the subject, this is not about environmental conservation – it is about the fear of economic enslavement. However, we will do well to remember that we go hoarse claiming that we are a country of phenomenal eco-systems with immense bio-diversity. After all the claim that we so proudly make, the following is what we will leave behind for our children.

High tension power lines already scar Bhutan's beautiful landscape. Our future generations will have to live with this ugliness.

And yet, I would like to look at this catastrophic failure, with hope and optimism. I would like to believe that those who can make a difference will draw lessons from this failure – and bear in mind that our hydro-power aspirations are nothing but a journey in self destruction.