Hello hydropower, it’s me again

I have written extensively about this topic in the past. But since this is an ongoing public discourse of great national importance, let me throw myself in the ring again.

I am aware that this is also a sensitive topic – in some sense. But I assure everyone that what I express here is out of genuine concern as a citizen – and I do with no vested interest or political affiliation or biases. Besides, I am not doing to maliciously hurt those who are at forefront of this ‘accelerated’ development – or to downplay the works of hundreds of engineers and workers who, at times, are risking their lives working inside the tunnels or on top of dangerous ridges. I am only providing another perspective to the discussion.

For a start, I am not a hard-core environmentalist who is against any kind of exploitation of natural resources. I feel Mother Earth can, and should, sustain our reasonable needs but not our greed – to paraphrase Gandhi. I often joke with my environmentalist friends that for them Bhutan is a forest with some people living in it. I also speak as someone with some knowledge of this field. My first degree is in electrical engineering and I interned for a month in Chukha Project during its final construction phase. The current MoE Secretary, Dasho Yeshey Wangdi and his assistant, Sigay Dorji, were my line supervisors. So I have also worn a safety helmet and have seen people die or get injured down there. In later decades, I documented the entire construction phase of Tala Project for BBS TV as a documentary producer-anchor for BBS TV.

In this article, I will situate my arguments with all these direct experiences and contextualise within the larger areas of public policy, technology and human resource development.

  1. Let technology catch up. As an electrical engineer, my biggest concern is what kind of technology is being implemented in our on-going mega projects. For instance, simple things like, what are the efficiencies of the machines that are being installed? As I write this, newer technological advancements are occurring in the field of power engineering that are more efficient, lighter, smaller, cheaper and more durable. In other words, for the same investment we get more power. How about that we wait a little longer for these technologies to be rolled out into the market? Or should we risk being stuck for generations with less-efficient turbines and transformers – bolted inside our hills and mountains?
  2. Let our people catch up. Most of our mega projects are done on turn-key basis except the ones built by Druk Green (Actually the way to go is how we are doing with Druk Green. Smaller ones and within our means). Turn-key projects were necessary in the past. Chukha and Tala were done with that model. I bow to that. But now, with growing number of young Bhutanese engineers and technicians going unemployed, how about that we build our financial capacity first and then do these projects on our own? Again – slowly. That way, we not only build things on our own, we can also give jobs to our youth and we can become world-class in hydro-engineering and help other countries to build theirs? Too wild a dream? Well, actually, we are already doing that in other fields. In my frequent travels in and out with Druk Air, I meet lots of Bhutanese professionals working for UN and other international organisations who are building other developing countries such as those in Africa and in the Middle East. My own former technical colleagues from BBS built radio and TV stations in South Sudan and East Timor. If we give ourselves some time and opportunities, we can be donors and builders too.
  3. Let’s hear what Chukha Plant has to say. Hydropower plants do not last for eternity. Yup, they have an expiry date. The dams, especially, will last between 60 to 100 years. Not more. So, to think that money will keep flowing for perpetuity is totally a false promise. Once the expiry date is over, we need to blast off those dams and tunnels and build new ones. Chukha’s expiry date will be anywhere between 2046 to 2086. That’s just 22 years from now. In political terms, just four elections away. Time flies. Mind you. We have already had 3 elections. And 2008 seems yesterday. So, won’t it a good idea to wait what does Chukha whispers in our ears and then proceed? If it is worth it to build so many projects. Can we learn a little more from Chukha? I would. In the US and in UK, dams built in the 1960s have been removed to everyone’s delight. They don’t intend to rebuild them again. There is more to water than just producing electricity and one report claims that the governments there have been “blindsided by the prospect of cheap electricity without taking into account the full environmental and social costs of these installations.” Why are we rushing into a territory from where others are running away?
  4. Let’s focus on human power and not just hydropower. Having taught Bhutanese students (at Sherubtse and in RTC) and, now, also students from many other countries, I can affirm one thing with great pride – Bhutanese students are no less than any other nationalities. We can do anything that others can do and be what we want to be. We don’t have to only invoke our water God to save us or to take our country forward into the future. We don’t have to envy anyone doing great things. We don’t have to put all our money and minds in hydropower. There is an immense human power that lay untapped in Bhutanese youth and people. I already mentioned that some of the technicians and engineers I worked with in BBS were in high demand by the UN. Some of our best minds are (unfortunately) building things in other countries because back home we fail to realise their potentials. Even our babysitters in New York are in greater demand than the Filipinos who dominated the industry until now. So then, can we also start recognising human power and not just hydropower as our natural resources?

I have more points and arguments on this topic. I didn’t even bring up the topic of us sitting on the seismic zone 5 (the highest), or the contentious issue of financing modality and rising national debt, or the diminishing power market – and above all, the environmental impact. But I will stop here and let the above ideas and concerns sink in.

The reason that this whole accelerated hydropower thing has become so unpalatable in recent years is that, it is coming at the expense of all other sectors – in terms of direct investments. I may sound bit apocalyptic but this doesn’t look good at all. We are drowning ourselves in our own self-made oversized dreams – mentally, politically, culturally and financially. And I am not saying it now with the wisdom of the hindsight after what’s happened with PHPA I. I have been ranting since 2013 when I was teaching in Sherubtse and PHPA II had, back then, not even taken off. 

And I really hope that I am wrong in all my assessments.



3 thoughts on “Hello hydropower, it’s me again

  1. Had a good read. I do agree with whatever you mentioned and also not to forget how Indians are starting to invest in other renewable energy sources which could impose threat on our hydropwer export. I really think we should take it slow and not be in rush and also focus on other means like human power as mentioned. All said and done, I am sure our leaders have thought everything through, they are the brains after all.


  2. Had a good read la. I too think we should take it slow and not rush and focus on other means like human power as you mentioned. More over the recent studies have shown huge setback of hydropwer plants.
    However, I hope the policy makers have thought this through, they are the brains after all.


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