Choki Wangmo

Considering the similar landscapes, topography, and hydropower development activities along basins, the recent Uttarakhand flood in India is a reminder to Bhutan’s hydropower authorities to strengthen disaster risk management at the ongoing projects.

International experts have observed that a number of glacier lakes at the remote sources of Punatsangchu are in a growing phase, especially in Tarina and Lunana. “Lakes at the Phochu headwaters are menacingly large and getting bigger over the years.”

The two mega projects—the 1,200MW Punatsangchu I and the 1,020MW Punatsangchu II—have hundreds of workers and heavy-duty equipment at work sites, located mostly at risk prone areas, jeopardising safety during times of natural hazards.

What is being done?

According to an official with the Druk Green Power Corporation, in case of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOFs), disaster management and contingency plans for the projects have been developed to reduce impacts on workers and machineries. “At the ongoing project sites, safety awareness was created through early warning systems, mock drills, constant communications, and preparations.”

The plan, approved in 2015, was developed in consultation with various stakeholders of the government.  The dzongkhag administrations prepared a plan of action in events of GLOFs.

For example, in case of a GLOF in Punatsangchu, emergency response would be completed by three hours.

The PHPA-I alone has about 500 employees and labourers.

The projects, in collaboration with the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteoreology, installed early warning systems along three river basins—Chamkharchu, Punatsangchu, and Mangdechu.

There are three automated sirens located within the Punatsangchu project area with one each at dam site, Basochu, and powerhouse. 

Security and fire personnel have been trained in emergency rescue operations and are made responsible for evacuation of all workers from vulnerable sites to designated safe locations according to the evacuation plans, said the official. “About 40 security and fire personnel of PHPA-I were trained in such operations.”

He said that the contractor’s equipment and facilities were insured in keeping with the contract provisions.  Workers at the ongoing projects and contractors are insured with the insurance companies in Bhutan and India.

Bhutan reportedly has 2,674 glacier lakes.