Hydropower: Environmentalist Yeshey Dorji will drop his petition and discontinue his campaign to leave at least one of Bhutan’s major river systems, the Chamkharchu, un-dammed and free-flowing.

“The government has been explicit that the Chamkharchu project is a done deal and that there is no room for discussion,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s response to the petition during the last Meet the Press.

“Regardless, it is my hope that the government will still leave open a small window of opening for reconsideration and recapitulation,” he added.

As of last evening, the petition had 480 signatures, 20 short of its 500 target. Yeshey Dorji said that he would neither submit the petition even if it acquires 500 signatures, nor continue his campaign as the government has made it clear that it 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,” he said.

However, Yeshey Dorji disagreed with the Prime Minister that the debate is coming a decade too late. “I’m aware of the existence of an agreement between Bhutan and India but that agreement is now untenable,” he said, referring to the 10,000MW by 2020 plan. He pointed out that six of the ten projects are still at the drawing board stage.

The 10,000MW plan has already been declared unachievable by the government and it is estimated only 5,000MW would be generated by 2021. A progress rate of 15 percent was also recently decried by the economic affairs minister as too slow.

Yeshey Dorji also believes that if Bhutan were to propose a relocation of the dam to India, it would be accepted as there are 76 other locations identified under the updated Bhutan Power System Plan 2004 and it would not affect the overall agreed generation. “I have no doubt that since India is coming under increased criticism form the international community given their environmental record, they will be equally recognised for partnering with Bhutan in our efforts at ecological and environmental conservation in a region that accounts for Asia’s largest fresh water supply,” he said.

But he also pointed out that Bhutan should have “first say” as it is Bhutan’s hydropower project.

“It is never too late to correct a mistake,” he said. “We all know and accept that this government was not a party to the hydropower agreements of the past,” he added. “However, feigning helplessness is not the way of a responsible government.”

He also posted on his blog yesterday that he is not one but two decades late. He writes that the recommendation to preserve some river systems for environmental, social, cultural, tourism, recreational and other objectives was included in the first Bhutan Power System Master Plan prepared and submitted in the early 1990s by a World Bank/NORAD consultant. The consultant, a John H Gerstle, apparently contacted the environmentalist to inform him of this occurrence.

While the petition will not be considered by the government, it did stimulate a public debate on the economic impact of Bhutan’s hydropower dams, specifically on if they benefit local communities.

While both the pro and against camps agreed to some extent that dams have not benefited local communities so far, many from Kheng, where the dam is to be located, still argued it would bring much needed development, like roads, to an impoverished area. The pro camp also argued that with changes in the agreement, local communities could benefit more.

Yeshey Dorji said such arguments had not changed his mind. “I am completely appalled at the assertion that the Chamkharchu project will bring roads, schools, hospitals, and electricity to Khengrig Namsum,” he said. “There is something sinister about some of the Khengpa’s insistence, even while they are fully aware that this has not been the case in every single one of our earlier projects,” he added. “They talk as if provision of these services is in the mandate of the project, thereby totally misleading innocent people.”

But Yeshey Dorji also pointed out that his intention was never to oppose the Chamkharchu dam but to leave one river in Bhutan un-dammed. He also pointed out that localised issues are of no consequence when talking of a national level concern.

Yeshey Dorji said he appreciated that the petition had sparked a debate on the issue of dams. He added that while he agreed with the present government for placing the blame on the past government for the “shamefully lopsided deal” Bhutan got on the hydropower projects, he hoped that the debate would lead to the present government doing things differently.

There are four changes Yeshey Dorji said he would like to see occur.

One is for professional lawyers to study an agreement prior to signing. “From what we have seen happening in Punatshangchu I & II and perhaps even in Mangdechu, it is evident that the negotiating team from Bhutan were sleep walking when they signed those hydropower project agreements,” he said.

Another change called for is for the government to ensure that clauses in the agreements protect the interest of the Bhutanese business community and local manufacturing industries.

He also asks that further hydropower projects are suspended until all current projects are completed and commissioned. “Because if we don’t, economic woes will be further compounded,” he said.

Yeshey Dorji also asks that it is ensured that all future detailed project reports are done professionally and then cross-checked by independent consultants to ensure the studies have been done properly and that repeated geological surprises do not occur.

On the environment front, Yeshey Dorji pointed out that none of the various environmental organisations had joined the debate. “Not one of our many environmentalists have come forward to publicly contest the false claims made by the political leadership and the hydropower proponents that our dams are environmentally sound,” he said. “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,” he added. “Not one has challenged the lie that all our hydropower projects are run-of-the-river projects.”

He also pointed out that no economist had spoken against the “economic peril, the debt burden and outrageous interest rate charged on the loans of the unsustainable manner is which we do our hydropower projects.”

Gyalsten K Dorji