The Chamkharchu debate

Since the impact of development on the natural environment was recognised decades ago, mankind has been debating the impact of dams. It is always conflicting as we talk about reducing human misery and destroying rivers and its ecosystem. This is quite apparent in developing countries.

The ongoing debate on the Chamkharchu hydroelectric project is no exception. It can be looked at from many sides. We have a choice of tapping the vast potential our river system provides, or preserve the natural system. Both carry equal weight. As a champion of environment preservation, we can boast about one of the few rivers left in the country or in the region, or even in the world where natural flow is not altered with a dam.

On the other hand, we could tap the free flowing river for economic gains as a least developed country. The project in question is planned in the poorest dzongkhag and forgoing the perceived economic prospect it could bring is hard to conjure.

Bhutan could boast of a river that is not dammed even with the potential of having several on its course. The benefit would go beyond Bhutan besides the recognition we would gain by the sacrifice. A section of the population, unfortunately the poorest, would not gain from this.

Sitting in the comforts of our offices in Thimphu and deciding the fate of the people of Kheng or a planned hydropower project would be difficult. But what we can take home from this debate is that there are some good pointers.

From the way the government reacted, there is no turning back on the project. The petitioner is one decade too late! The project was planned in 2006. But that doesn’t mean that we can blindly follow what was planned by our predecessors.

Given the way the ongoing hydropower projects are implemented, the petition comes as a good reminder and a caution on our dependence on hydropower. The reasoning that our projects would offset greenhouse gases and contribute to fight climate change are far fetched, even if it may be true. It would be more realistic if we can reap the benefits of the projects that come at the cost of the environment.

There is no doubt that dams change rivers. But the degree to which they change and the negative impacts on human and nature depends on how they are built and managed. In our case, it starts from the planning stage. From our good experience, there is a need of social impact studies at the planning stage. Economically, if hydropower projects want to benefit people, it should not lead to displacement. If inevitable, they should be properly compensated.

The experiences in the recent past could scare people and could make them believe that our projects are social evils. The impact of dam construction or hydro projects should be abated through appropriate planning and management. This should start at the planning stage.

Our economy is as fragile as the young Himalayan ecosystem. Without due consideration to both, neither the economy nor the environment would benefit.

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    The studies on impacts of dams on the ecosystem are equally old as the studies of dams for economic benefits. If the large storage dams of the past met with strong opposition for its negative impact on the ecosystems, the new engineering techniques and technologies involved in today’s Run-off-the-River projects have been involved in the green and environment friendly hydro power development. In last a few decades, we have never been forced to look backwards or any other way.

    With an well developed dam architecture in place, with availability of high end technology and effective execution of engineering techniques, there is no need to slow down in adding capacities. It’s very rightly mentioned that the petition in question is already a decade late. The all important projects which are in their gestation period now have maintained a good pace. We also expect to see all these projects to be commissioned more or less on schedule. But to study their impacts on the ecosystem, the experts have to wait probably another decade for a detailed study.

    We don’t know about those impacts now. A decade or two from now will also see new engineering techniques and technologies finding solutions to today’s problems. We don’t even know whether there will be any negative impact on our environment in the future from these hydro projects. When their economic benefits are well known and are the reasons behind making it so popular, we do see some impacts even during their long construction phase. Do we also take that into consideration as it involves machinery used and the way they are engineered in today’s time! In future, even our machines will probably be engineered differently to reduce their impacts on the ecosystem.

    Bhutan needs its hydro potential to be fully utilised. There is also need to speed up the capacity addition on YoY basis. But will speed lead to impacting the ecosystem as well? Time and Cost over runs are enemies in project management. If new engineering techniques and technologies are to be arrived in future as solutions, should we save one river system for that future? That’s a decision to make without any dilemma.

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