Hydropower constructions challenge Bhutan’s forest cover goals?

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Hydropower is a major economic sector and revenue generator for Bhutan. In fact, over the years, the country has made huge investments in mega hydropower projects along its river basins, which have had obvious tangible impacts on the environment and habitat of both wildlife and human settlements.

According to a report ‘Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Bhutan’ published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) in 2017, around 2,276 hectares of forest were affected by hydropower projects developed so far. This translates to around 272 hectares of forest for every hydropower project.On an average, two hectares of forest are lost for every megawatt (MW) generation capacity.

Five major hydropower projects are currently operational in Bhutan, all of which are run-of-the-river schemes viz. Tala (1,020MW), Chhukha (336MW), Dagachhu (126MW), Basochhu (64MW) and Kurichhu (60MW), Mangdechhu (720MW). The constructions of Punatsangchhu I (1,200MW), Punatsangchhu II (1,020MW) and Nikachhu (118MW) hydropower projects are in full swing.

Of the total potential of 30,000MW, Bhutan government plans to harness 18,380MW of hydropower. This is estimated to affect 39,760 hectares of forest.

On the other hand, Bhutan’s Constitution mandates that 60% of the total land area should be under forest cover for all times. Currently, Bhutan’s total forest cover is 70.46% and 51% of its total land area is designated as protected areas comprising five national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, one strict nature reserve and biological corridors. Bhutan has also committed to remain carbon neutral at all times and forests act as major carbon sink and pool.

Against this backdrop, will Bhutan be able to find a middle path to balance development and conservation of its environment?

Implications of hydropower projects
The prioritization of hydropower development as the primary source of foreign exchange and economic development is clear. However, hydropower expansion is a potent underlying driver that will put pressure on the country’s forests.

The construction of mega hydropower projects entails the construction of lots of infrastructure and amenities such as Power House Complex, networks of roads, Head Race Tunnel (HRT), Tail Race Tunnel (TRT), construction of project colony, education and health facilities, and transmission lines for power distribution, for which a large tract of land is cleared.

According to Druk Green Power Corporation, an electricity utility company that operates and maintains hydropower assets of Bhutan, a total of 2098.62 acres of State Reserve Forest Land (SRFL) have been affected by the construction of six hydropower projects.

Details of the land area occupied for the projects under construction and projects recently commissioned are as below:

Further, the construction of hydropower projects directly contributes to the emission and release of greenhouse gas, deforestation and forest degradation, land-use change, loss of forest or top soil and several other adverse impacts.

Yeshey Dorji, an avid blogger who mostly writes on environmental issues, said the construction of hydropower projects has not badly affected the environment but substantially changed the ecological landscape. “It has created huge corridors along the pristine environment to built transmission lines and built roads for sand and boulder extraction, also dumping of excavated materials which cause or impact the flora and fauna,” he said.  Not only this but the marine lives is affected when there is diversion of river and food availability of the wild lives is disturbed too, he shared.

“When there is infringement in the territories of the wild animals and marine animals then the whole food chain is disturbed,” he said.

Impact on wildlife habitat
The hydropower projects have had a huge impact on the habitat of the critically endangered White Bellied Heron. The Punatsangchhu basin is the largest habitat for the White-Bellied Heron in Bhutan, where two mega hydropower projects are currently being built.

According to the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), a non-governmental organization that works on White Bellied Heron conservation, the installation of continuous hydropower project I and II along the Punatshangchhu are quite devastating for the heron’s habitat.

Dr. Kinley Tenzin, the Executive Director of RSPN, said PHPA-I and II fall within the WBH habitat which roughly covers around 5 – 8% of total WBH habitat in Bhutan. “We have observed that WBHs are slowing reusing the habitats, once the disturbance decreases. Currently, we have also observed that that the WBH is using Dagachhu dam as feeding habitat. We frequently also observed that Herons are coming back to Kamichhu and Dangchhu confluence after several years. Therefore, we assume that once the construction work is completed, the vegetation will come back in most of the areas except dams and Herons will probably return and reuse the area. The most important is that the healthy fish population in the river should be maintained,” he said.

With the support from the PHPA, WBH Conservation center at changchey, Tsirang district was established which will be used for WBH breeding as part of population restoration program.

“We regularly maintain key habitats along Phochhu and Mochhu to ensure that they do not become locally extinct. Created artificial feeding areas to supplement food resources and education, advocacy, awareness to stakeholders and community living along the WBH habitat areas continues. Annual inventory and survey of WBH in collaboration with DoFPS, local government and communities was carried,” he added.

According to the RSPN, the distribution range of WBH is increasing across the country today. This year alone, RSPN have sighted WBH in two new locations: Bumdeling and lower Dagana. The RSPN is still mapping actual suitable habitat available for WBH in Bhutan. There is also change is altitudinal distribution range in WBH habitat from initial 600 – 1500m to as low as 150m to up to 2000m. The RSPN still know very little about the behavior and ecology of the WBH.

“Heron is sensitive to human disturbances and it has been disturbed by the increased number of anthropogenic pressure along the upper basin of the Punatsangchhu river basin but we still have a few birds in Phochhu and Mochhu area and also along Kisonachhu, Taksha and below. As long as we can save key feeding habitats with healthy fish population, we should be able to save them,” Dr. Kinley Tenzin shared.

Off the total 60 White Bellied Herons in the world today, 27 are recorded in Bhutan, according to the 18th annual population conducted on 27th February- 2 March, 2020.

The Balancing Act

Managing Director of DGPC Dasho Chhewang Rinzin said DGPC contributed Nu. 9,499.05mn in the form of dividend, taxes and royalty to the government in 2019. This is excluding the revenues from the 720 MW Mangdechhu HPP, which was commissioned in June 2019. “Besides, contributing revenue through sale of electricity, hydropower projects help boost local as well as national level economies during the construction period,” said Dasho Chhewang Rinzin.

According to a recent assessment of the 1,020MW Punatshangchhu-II, DGPC found that at least 37% of the total expenditure made gets ploughed back into the local economy.

To address forest loss due to hydropower projects, the government has put in place compensatory plantations, which is managed by Green Bhutan Corporation, formed in 2017. The government is also addressing the forest loss through establishment of a plough-back mechanism of 1% of royalties, to be paid to MoAF on an annual basis for sustainable management of watersheds, although this is yet to be operationalized.

DGPC’s Managing Director claimed that most of the negative impacts of hydropower, particularly for Bhutan, are limited to the construction phase and are therefore temporary in nature. “The only obvious impact of hydroelectric projects that have already been commissioned are the changes to the hydrological regime primarily through the changes in the timing, magnitude and frequency of high and low flows ultimately producing a hydrologic regime differing from pre-project natural flow regime,” he said.

Even this has limited impact since all the hydropower projects in Bhutan are run-of-the-river schemes, he argued. “There is however the stretch starting from the diversion dam to the powerhouse where the river discharges, gets diverted through a tunnel virtually reducing the river volume in that section of the river. For hydropower projects under construction and those that are being planned, this issue is likely to get addressed by the e-flow guidelines that are being put in place,” he said.

He shared that through institutional linkages and through collaboration with government agencies, studies are being undertaken at plants already under operation and those under construction, which are leading to the development of national repository on national bio-diversity, which can be used as a baseline information for future projects.“There are also serious deliberations and initiatives being taken on e-flows, fish ladders, fish hatcheries and overall to safeguard the pristine environment and biodiversity that could otherwise be impacted by hydroelectric projects.”

He said that with less than 10% of the overall hydropower potential harnessed at the moment, there is opportunity for all stakeholders to work together and to ensure that the impact on the environment, ecosystems and habitats are minimized while developing the hydropower potential – which is on the other hand the backbone of the Bhutanese economy.

Strict Environmental Assessment
Since environmental clearance is a pre-requisite for the construction of any hydropower project as per the Environmental Assessment Act 2000, all the hydropower projects are subject to full-fledged environmental and social impact assessment studies.

During project construction phase, an Environment Unit ensures that mitigation measures are identified and implemented as per the environmental impact studies. Projects are monitored continuously with ad-hoc inspections from NEC and penalties are imposed if there is failure to comply with the terms and conditions of the environmental clearance.

Environmental impact studies on physical, biological, aquatic and social environment are undertaken and any impact that the project might have on these environments are then mitigated through management plans which are executed during the construction phase and also continued during the operation phase. 

“As all of Bhutan’s hydropower plants are conceived and constructed as run-of-the-river scheme projects which unlike the huge reservoir schemes built elsewhere in the world have minimal impact on the environment and settlements downstream,” said Dasho Chhewang Rinzin.

 “This is a major consideration in the planning for hydropower projects in Bhutan. Even where a few reservoir schemes are planned, the terrestrial area covered would run into a few thousands of acres. Displacement of habitation and submergence of land due to hydropower projects in Bhutan are the lowest in the world. And it is intended to keep that way,” said Dasho Chhewang Rinzin.

A forest policy analyst, Dr. Phuntsho Namgyal, agrees that while the most extreme environmental impact of a hydropower dam, from the point of ecological landscape, is water reservoir flooding land, which dislocates people and communities, and destroys forest and wildlife, in Bhutan’s case, thanks to the deep mountain valleys and small population, the social and environmental impact of a dam is negligible or small.

He said for instance, a hydropower dam in a flat area in Brazil with a generating capacity of just 250MW flooded 2,360 sq. km (one sixteenth of Bhutan’s area or equal to more than 2,000 acres per MW). “I don’t have the figures for Bhutan. It is my gut feeling that it cannot be more than an acre per MW,” he said.

“The Bhutan Forest Act 1969 has brought about the biggest change in ecological landscape in the country through nationalization of forest and trees on private land, strict regulation of forest use by people, and banning of tseri (the practice of shifting cultivation). From the satellite images of the country over the past six decades we know that forest cover increased from under 60% to over 80%, agricultural land decreased from about 10% to fewer than 3%, and grasslands decreased from 4% to 2.5%,” he added.

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyal said that the government needs to invest on research. “The environmental concerns have to be evidence based rather than based on emotions, and making general statements. Since Bhutan lacks data for proper monitoring and evaluation of the social and environmental impact of hydropower development. Bhutan also lacks reports and stories on hydropower development,” he added.

This story was produced from the fellowship of Internew’s Earth Journalism Network.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu

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