The Prime Minister did not agree with any of the arguments raised by those against the dam 

Hydropower: Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said that the Chamkharchu project debate come almost a decade too late and that the economic opportunities and benefits outweigh the environmental impacts of the project.

An online petition to have at least one of Bhutan’s major river systems, the Chamkharchu, without a dam has sparked a public debate on the economic impact of dams. The dam in question is to be located in upper Kheng in Zhemgang.

Speaking at the 19th meet-the-press yesterday, the prime minister said, “The Chamkharchu issue is coming up almost a decade too late.” He said the governments of India and Bhutan signed an agreement for the construction of the project in 2006, and in 2009 a protocol to the agreement was signed between the two prime ministers to increase power generation in Bhutan to 10,000MW by 2020.

“Though the work on Chamkharchu has not started it’s fairly late that the debate has been raised,” Lyonchoen said, adding that he has been following the debate in the newspapers.

Those in favour of the project, he said, were of the view that the region will prosper. He said others who were not in favour said it does not matter and that the government should invest in other ways.

“Yes, we will continue to invest in other ways. But the bottom line is who is going to compensate us for the billions of ngultrums in revenue that we will have to forgo from just Chamkharchu?” he said.

“As a member of this government, I refuse to take this risk and to be this irresponsible,” lyonchoen said. While Bhutan has an excellent environment track record, he says there is no need to sacrifice even further economic gains and future revenues, which he said will go to providing free education and health care and benefiting the economy.

He described Chamkharchu as one of the 10 most economically viable hydropower projects in the country.

On the Chamkharchu and the Kholongchu projects, he said the government has worked diligently to ensure the joint ventures the two governments have signed are reasonable and benefit Bhutan. “Our responsibility as government is to ensure that the projects benefit Bhutan as much as possible,” he said.

Lyonchoen said the way the projects are being carried out is based on earlier agreements, which the government has to abide by. “But that said it has benefited our economy and it can benefit more,” he said.

He also said that the government would ensure that hydropower will benefit the country both during the construction and the post construction phases.

He said the revenues from hydropower are needed to provide free education and health services. This year, he said Bhutan would spend a recurrent expenditure of Nu 2.66B in health care alone. Another Nu 6.5B would be spent to provide free education.

If the capital expenditures of education and health are combined, he said the expenditures would come to almost Nu 14B. He said everybody wants free health care and education to be provided.

“Not only free health care and free education, we want more MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and more CT (computed tomography) scans and more colleges and better schools, for which we need more money,” the prime minister said. Right now, he said the money comes from hydropower.

Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay said hydropower belongs to the people of Bhutan, not one or two individuals or companies.

He said there is a potential to build as many as seven hydropower projects on Chamkharchu, some as small as 53MW. The Chamkharchu joint venture project with the Indian government is 770MW.

The prime minister also said that the environmental impact of the project would be minimal as it is a run off the river project. “Sometimes they want to save Chamkharchu, which is the environmental part, the other times they talk of the fresh water and still some other time you want to talk about hydropower being a bad investment and that it doesn’t help Bhutan.”

Environment wise, lyonchoen said Bhutan was still the most pristine country in the world with 72 percent of the country under forest cover and 52 percent of being protected as biological corridor and nature reserves. He said Bhutan has committed to remain carbon neutral and that it is the first country in the world to do so.

If climate change is an issue, he said the 1,200MW Punatshangchu I project would offset more than 4M tons of carbon dioxide in India by selling 80 percent of the project’s generation. This, he said, would be Bhutan’s contribution to the region to fight climate change.

Lyonchoen said Bhutan’s hydropower projects benefits Bhutan financially and environmentally, while it benefits the regional environmentally. He said 80 percent of the hydropower is exported to India and that Punatshangchu I and II are going to offset about 7M tons of carbon per year in India.

In fact, he said every hydropower project is going to offset similar amounts of greenhouse gasses that would otherwise be emitted in India. “So from the environmental point of view it’s fantastic,” he said.

“I have heard concerns that we have to protect our fresh waters,” he said. “I don’t see how generating hydropower is going to tamper with the freshness of the water.”

He said whether the river flows through uninterrupted or is used to generate electricity fresh water is going to remain fresh. He said the government is not even damming the river to create reservoirs.

On the argument that the way the hydropower are being implemented is inefficient, he said it has taken many years from the construction of the Samteling hydropower project through Chhukha which is the first big project.

Punatasngchu I and II projects being implemented as per the agreement signed between the two countries. “To say that the way they are implemented is inefficient or that it does not benefit Bhutan as much as it could is too late.”

“These concerns should have been raised before the two governments signed their agreements, especially if they had access to leadership at that time, and some of the people had access to leadership,” he said.

MB Subba