Road Networks in  Bhutan

The Road Classification System of Bhutan approved in June 2017 defines the primary national highways with the traffic volume of more than 200 vehicles per day, formation width of 10.5meters and carriageway of 7.5meters; and the secondary national highways with traffic volume between 100-200 vehicles per day, formation width of 8.50meters and carriageway of 5.5meters. There are 1,822.45km of primary national highways, and 903.28km of secondary national highways, constructed in the country as of 2018.

Among the road networks in the country, the demand for farm roads increased rapidly with the on set of democracy in the country. For example, close to 1,657.74 km of farm roads were constructed in the 9th plan period (2003-2008). By the end of the December 2017, according to records with Department of Agriculture, more than 11,196.24km of farm roads were constructed. These infrastructure constructions, however, have added some costs to our local environment. Sediment loads have increased in the local streams and rivers as demonstrated by the reddish/brownish color of water in the summer, and local air pollution increased, concentration of particulate matter (P10) in particular during the winter. One of the proposed farm roads which was later upgraded to the national highway standard is Shingkhar Gorgan road, connecting two Dzongkhags: Bumthang and Lhuentse. 

 Map: Proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan road alignment

Map: Proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan road alignment

Construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan Road Discourse

The 84th session of the National Assembly in 2005 endorsed the re-alignment of Thimphu-Trashigang highway through Shingkhar in Ura, Bumthang to Gorgan in Metsho Gewog, Lhuentse. This new construction would benefit six eastern dzongkhags primarily because road between Sengor and Yongkola in Mongar was narrow and prone to vehicular accidents. The roadblocks at Phrumsengla (3780 masl) due to heavy snow and ice made it difficult for commuters to travel during winter. 

The 7th session of the First Parliament in 2011 directed the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement to undertake the Shingkhar–Gorgan road construction. The construction proposal was approved during the 108th Cabinet meeting in 2011 with the instruction that the construction of road should have a minimal ecological impact since the alignment runs through the Thrumshingla National Park (now renamed as Phrumsengla National Park). The Phrumsengla National Park Management Plan 2008- 2013 (extended to 2018), noted that one of the major emerging challenges for the Park is the proposal to build three additional highways which fall within the core areas of the park: Kheng-Shingkhar to Ura; Kheng-Shingkhar to Lingmethang; and Ura-Shingkhar to Ungar-Lhuentse. Under the Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulation of Bhutan of 2006, revised in 2017, section 393 (Prohibited Activity), (1) states that felling in core zone of protected area and critical watershed is strictly prohibited. Section 394 (Restricted Activity), (1) further states that construction of any infrastructure in protected area is not permitted without a written permit. The Forest Clearance for the Shingkhar-Gorgan road construction was denied, (one of the pre-requisites to the Environment Clearance), without amendment to these provisions of the forest regulations. 

The need for Shingkhar-Gorgan road and its urgency to construct was discussed in the 3rd session (2014) and 7th session (2016) of the 2nd Parliament. Because of its importance, this re-alignment was incorporated in the revised Twenty Year Road Master Plan (2000- 2027) and to be taken up in the 11th plan period (2013-2018) by the Department of Roads. According to this Master Plan, the proposed road from Shingkhar to Pephu will provide connectivity shorter by 100km between Shingkhar and Lhuentse. The highway will also strengthen the old traditional bondage of people from the two villages, Shingkhar in Bumthang and Zhomey in Lhuentse. 

 The road alignment from Wangjanpang to Pangkhangbi is at slope 20 to 30 degrees (Photo: Tempa)

The road alignment from Wangjanpang to Pangkhangbi is at slope 20 to 30 degrees (Photo: Tempa)

Environment Clearance for Road Construction 

The Ministry of Works and Human Settlement was directed to construct Shingkhar- Gorgan road with minimum environmental impact in close consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. As directed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, one of the research institutes under the Department of Forests and Park Services, carried out a Rapid Environmental and Social Assessment study of the Shingkhar-Gorgan road in August 2016. The report argued that of the 36km proposed, 18.57km fall within the Phrumsengla National Park’s multiple use zone. The Department of Forests and Park Services issued the Forest Clearance in December 2016 for the road construction by using findings of this report as one of the basis.

The Ministry of Works and Human Settlement applied for the Environment Clearance to construct the road to the National Environment Commission Secretariat in January 2017. The documents included the Environment Impact Assessment report of 2011-2012, and the Forest Clearance. After studying the Environment Impact Assessment report, the National Environment Commission Secretariat noted that the information provided were inadequate, confusing, and did not meet requirements of environment regulations of the country. The entire length of Shingkhar-Pephu project road is in the core zone of Phrumsengla National Park, according the Environment Impact Assessment report. Guided by section (20) of Environmental Assessment Process of the Regulation for Environmental Clearance of Projects 2016, the National Environment Commission Secretariat requested the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement for additional information on the proposed project in March 2017. 

The importance of the road once again re-surfaced in the 11th session (2018) of the 2nd Parliament. One of the directives was to carry out a detail environment impact assessment including geotechnical studies to meet the requirements of the environment regulations of the country. 

Feasibility Assessment of Shingkhar-Gorgan Road

The Department of Roads with support from the Department of Geology and Mines, and the Department of Forests and Park Services carried out the Feasibility Assessment of Shingkhar-Gorgan road in July 2018 for the duration of two weeks field works. The salient features of the report are outlined here.

The proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan highway alignment takes off from the termination point of existing Shingkhar forest road under Ura geowg at an elevation of 3594 masl. The types of rocks found in the area are schist and quartzite overlaid by colluvium deposit on gullies and depression. The alignment ascends to a height of 3980 masl below Singmala with three hairpin bends (1st, 2nd and 3rd) within a distance of 5km (mapA). The shifting of these hairpins bends in this area may be difficult because of the presence of marshy areas, local perennial stream called Lirichu and the sacred place called Zagor Nyee. The rock types at Singmala saddle area are laminated mica schist dipping almost parallel to general slope. In such a geological set up, the failure of slopes are highly likely once slopes toes are disturbed or cut.

The alignment from Singmala saddle descends to north to northeast facing slope of 9° to 30° with another three hairpin bends (4th, 5th and 6th). The area appeared to be wet and swampy due to presence of two small streams. This north facing road alignment stretch of 6.9km with two hairpin bends (4th and 6th) is highly likely to receive less sunshine, hence icing problems in the winter months. For example, 3km stretch of road along the Gayzmachu-Phrumsengla pass (3780 masl) of the East-West high way has been a perpetual problem for travelers in the winter months. 

The alignment descends to 8th hairpin bend towards southeast facing slope and passes through the base of pasturelands called Ngarapang at 3656 masl and crosses over Wangjanpang at 3612 masl. The alignment stretch between Wangjanpang and Pangkhangbi is at slope between 20° to 38° with numerous narrow gullies both wet and dry sites. After crossing 10th hairpin bend below Pangkhanbi, about 5km of road alignment leading to Terterbi passes through vertical rocky cliff (around 90° slope) ahead of Khan. Experiences have shown that road construction along vertical rocky cliff is very slow. The construction of Gyalposhing-Nganglam road has taken 12 years (2006-2018) to complete, and Damchu-Chukha by pass construction has taken 9 years (2009-2018) to complete because of vertical rocky cliff sections.

The alignment from Khan to Dzethopang passes through hemlock forest with thick under growth and steep terrain of 25° slope. The survey team was not able to walk through this stretch of alignment. The alignment from Dzethopang to Gortshometh cliff composed of biotite gneiss passes through the 11th and 12th hairpins at Dem Brangsa and Lawapang respectively at slope angle of 25° to 40°. Before reaching Pephu Goenpa, the alignment drops at the 13th and 14th hairpins at an elevation of 2370 masl and 2310 masl respectively. About 40 % of this stretch is rocky area.  After crossing Phephu Goenpa (2136 masl), there are 11 hairpin bends with a distance of 8km towards Gorgan.

Some observations

The Shingkhar-Gorgan road alignment stretch is 52.2km passing through the highest elevation of the road networks in Bhutan. Prominently about 6.9km stretch of road falls above elevation of 3600 masl facing the north direction. Snow/icing in the winter months is going to be a big problem. There are more than 14 hairpin bends within a distance of 32.2km between Shingkhar and Pephu, and 29 hairpins within a distance of 20km between Phephu and Gorgan. The geometric improvement of these stretches is going to be a difficult task due to very steep terrain. Some of the hairpin bends radius is not going to meet technical standards of the primary national highways of 15meters radius.  There are also some stretches of alignment falling in the zone of virgin forest, wet and marshy areas, pasturelands, and vertical rocky cliff sites. Our engineers provide a rough estimate of Nu.1.8 billion for the secondary national highway, and over Nu.2.6 billion for primary national highway standards, for a stretch of 32.2 km of roads from Shingkhar to Pephu Goenpa.  

Technically it is a possibility, but at what economic and environment costs?

Contributed by  Chencho Norbu


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