It will be the first country to do so in the region

Environment: Bhutan will be the first country in the region to declare a protected river system. This declaration will be made in September.

Experts from various local organisations and the World Wildlife Fund  (WWF) are working on a project to identify potential rivers or their stretches to declare protected.

It is a tribute to the Fourth Druk Gyalpo on the 60th birth anniversary and to fulfil one of the key targets of the 11th Plan.

National Environment Commission (NEC) secretary, Ugyen Tshewang said, as the country is one of the 10 hotspots in the world, with potential threats to aquatic ecosystems there are risks of the country’s position dropping in the global ranking resulting in adverse impacts.

“The protected river should be representative of the ecosystem of other rivers in the country,” the secretary said.

However, experts working on identifying the potential stretches of rivers for protection were faced with difficult questions.

Whether the country could have at least one river free flowing and without dams was a pertinent question that experts deliberated over during the workshop. Similar concerns were also raised at the E3 hydropower conclave last year in Thimphu. Questions on what trade offs could be made and whether it would make a difference to protect a stretch of a river were raised.

From an economic standpoint, not exploiting a river for its hydropower energy, may not be wise.

An economic affairs ministry’s map of identified hydropower potential sites of projects above 25 mega watts show all rivers as potential sites.

Then there is also a question of conservation equity, an expert from Griffiths University, Australia, Simon Linke said.

He said it could be unfair on those living along the protected river to lose the opportunities of having a hydropower project and its related benefits.

“Some rivers have their sources outside the country so they would not qualify as a control or baseline rivers,” a core group member said. Of the four major river basins, two originate from outside the country.

They would address all these questions in the next two months as they prepare to identify rivers.

Conservationists and some other members argued that dams of hydropower projects are a serious threat to the aquatic biodiversity.

“Dams would break the connectivity of the river and affect the aquatic life and the ideal situation would be to have free flowing rivers protected,” said a WWF-USA scientist Michele Thieme, adding that the decision would depend upon the law makers.

Members proposed protecting some stretches of rivers in the parks or protected areas to increase the area as the upstream is already protected.

An RSPN conservationist, Rebecca Pradhan said the project was long overdue.

“We can’t stop hydropower, so let’s go ahead and do what we can when we have the opportunity,” she said.

She proposed protecting sections of rivers where endangered species live and also in varying climatic zones.

NEC water resources coordination unit chief, Tenzin Wangmo said the long-term objectives are to preserve ecological integrity in the river and its watershed, besides building a sense of stewardship between the residents, industries, and political representatives.

“The stretch of a river would serve as a baseline or control river for researchers to allow research of aquatic biodiversity and socioeconomic reasons to compare against all rivers which are being tapped for hydropower, among others,” she said.

The 10-month WWF project has a fund of Nu 3.1 million. A technical assessment of rivers by a core team consisting members altogether from RSPN, agriculture ministry’s Wildlife Conservation Division, economic affairs ministry, the College of Natural Resources and other related agencies.

Once the river or its  stretches are identified, NEC will consult other stakeholders including the economic affairs ministry and the local governments, among others.

Tshering Palden