Discussions on the benefits and disadvantages of hydropower projects at the National Assembly on January 10 overshadowed the discussions of when the government would start the Chamkharchu project.

Zhemgang’s Bardo-Trong Member of Parliament (MP) Gyembo Tshering and Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi stressed the importance of the project for regional development. Zhemgang dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) members also wrote to the government to expedite the construction last month.

The foreign minister, Dr Tandi Dorji, said previous governments claimed people should not worry about hydropower debts, but Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa’s (DNT) stand is that there is no such thing as a debt with or without risk.

He also said that since there is no market for the electricity than India, any policy change in India on tariff affects the country. “It is important we borrow in accordance to our ability to pay it back.”

He asked if it was really necessary to relate poverty alleviation to hydropower projects. “The living standard of people in Chukha and Mongar has also not improved much. Hydropower only benefits the residents when it is under construction.”

The economic affairs minister, Loknath Sharma, said Chamkharchu project was not able to start since the same model project in Kholongchu couldn’t start. “Once we resolve all the issues, we would start the project.”

He said there are many discussions going on about Chamkharchu project and they would have to take all those into account. “Chamkharchu is in a remote dzongkhag but we have to study the feasibility and the local benefits.”

The minister said a high-level committee is studying the way forward for hydropower projects and the government could only base the decision on the report. “I cannot submit if the government would construct Chamkharchu project or not today.”

Finance minister, Namgay Tshering, said it is important to put forward the national interest before self-interest since 71 percent of the national debt is hydropower debt and the interest is high. “We should never think that hydropower debt doesn’t pose any threat.”

He said the national debt would increase to almost Nu 249B when 12th Plan completes.

Lyonpo Namgay Tshering said it is important to ponder on the self-reliance and country’s security before taking too many loans. “We have to depend on India for market and there are alternative energies.”

MPs have also submitted differing views and perspectives for hydropower construction.

Dagana’s Drujeygang MP Jurmi Wangchuk said that hydropower construction was necessary for regional balanced development. “Dagana and Zhemgang are the two most backward dzongkhags and the government should borrow for the construction.”

Chukha’s Bongo-Chapcha MP, Tshewang Lhamo, said she didn’t support the construction of hydropower projects. Chukha has two projects but the dzongkhag’s poverty rate is 3.5 and unemployment is 2.3, which is high,” she said. “If hydropower helps in poverty alleviation and unemployment, Chukha’s poverty and the unemployment rate should be zero.”

She said hydropower increases the loan, which would pose security threats. “Punatsangchu projects have a problem and we have not been able to solve it yet.” She suggested diversifying the economy.

Trongsa’s Drakteng-Langthel MP, Gyem Dorji, said people in Drakteng gewog have not benefitted from the Mangdechu project. “People have to live in dust.”

He said it was important to maintain Chamkharchu as the only undammed river. “Even the environmental impact assessments are ‘copy pasted’ and not an assessment conducted in the particular project area.” He also said there is no accountability in detailed project reports, as Bhutanese are not involved, which results in cost escalation.

Gyembo Dorji said the former two governments, through the Parliament deliberations, endorsed the construction of the project. “If people are saying we depend on snow-fed rivers to hydropower, it is important we take advantage of the opportunity.”

Having served in the past parliament, Samdrupjongkhar’s Dewathang-Gomdar MP, Ugyen Dorji, reminded about the umbrella agreement made between Bhutan and India in 2006, which states India would not only support Bhutan to achieve the 10,000MW electricity production but also buy the surplus energy and tariff would be based on the cost of the production.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said the achieving 10,000MW by 2020 was set when Tala, Kurichu and Chukha started and completed on time. “Knowing the problems with Mangdechu, Punatsangchu and Kholongchu construction, we have to rethink it.”

He said Punatsangchu project, which was supposed to complete in five to six years, is now taking more than 15 years and experts now say it would be difficult to even complete in 12th Plan. “The cost escalated by three times. The initial cost estimate of 30B is increasing to 100B.”

Lyonchhen said in Kholongchu, there is a problem since it is a joint venture and there are management issues. “Chamkharchu is also a joint venture and the construction would start once all the issues of the joint venture are resolved.”

He also said bargaining the tariff is difficult. “There is an agreement but it is different in reality.”

The Prime Minister also said there would be a policy change from April in India, where the Central Electricity Regulatory Authority would change many tariff negotiation formula, increase the project economic life span and decrease the profit for Bhutan. “Hydropower is important and we want to increase the target to generate 20,000MW but let us do it slowly.”

He also said regional development should not just base on hydropower. “Rivers are the jewel of Bhutan and future generations should also benefit from it.”

Tashi Dema

Additional reporting by  Manika Rai and  Karma Yuden