Flow for Worship, Flow for Money: Water Wheels and Hydropower in Bhutan

Countries like Bhutan, Nepal, parts of Tibet and parts of India like Sikkim have some lovely Buddhist traditions linked to the nature. On the edges of forests, overlooking valleys and atop majestic mountains flutter tiny colorful prayer flags. Inside Dzongs, fixed prayer wheels spin by the tug of a pious hand. While spinning and fluttering, the prayers are supposed to be disseminated in the universe, reaching every sentinel being.

But there is a third kind of fascinating prayer wheel. It worships not only the creator, but also flowing water. Today, as naturally flowing waters become rarer, it is strangely reassuring to see these wheels spinning away, as the stream pushes the small wooden turbines round and round. These wheels are more fascinating for their symbolic significance: In these regions where water wheels worship the flow, the same flow is being harnessed for generating money and power: Hydropower. In Bhutan, the 10,000 MW + hydropower initiative supported by India and financial institutions like ADB & other foreign players will dam almost all of the big river systems in the country.

In fact, institutions like ADB are so over-enthusiastic in pushing hydropower in Bhutan ( ADB is ‘administering‘ Hydropower grants to Bhutan from countries like Norway and Japan)  that they see Bhutan’s strong environmental conservation practices as ‘hurdles’ in this development. ADB says: “Bhutan’s strong environmental conservation policies have affected the pace of implementing power projects because of the time required to complete procedures such as environmental impact assessments, public consultations, forestry clearances, and road planning.”

What follows is a short photo feature on Water Wheels in Bhutan as well as the hydropower development in the Punatsangchu Basin, through the 1200 MW Punatsangchu I HEP. Just a few kilometers downstream is the proposed intake and dam of Punatsangchu II which is also underway.

Bhutan is the only country in the world which measures its development not only in terms of GDP, but through Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is an aggregate of a number of things, including environmental conservation and preservation of culture.

Let us hope that this dense hydropower development does not affect the Bhutanese tenets of happiness…

A majestic three tiered prayer wheel in Paro, on way to Tigers Nest Monastery Photo: SANDRP

Majestic three- tiered prayer wheels in Paro, on way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery Photo: SANDRP

A tiny water wheel in agricultural fields of Paro Photo: SANDRP

A tiny water wheel in agricultural fields of Paro Photo: SANDRP

One more water wheel on way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP

One more water wheel on way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP

A water prayer wheel in a village near Paro Photo: SANDRP

A water prayer wheel in a village near Paro Photo: SANDRP

A water wheel on a flowing stream in a dense forest, on way to Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP

A water wheel on a flowing stream in a dense forest, on way to Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP

The wooden wheel blades

The wooden wheel blades Photo: SANDRP

A roadside Prayer wheel with steel blades Photo: SANDRP

A roadside Prayer wheel with steel blades Photo: SANDRP

A roadside water wheel on way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP

A roadside water wheel on way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP

On way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP

On way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP

On way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP

On way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP

Cascade of three water wheels in Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP

Cascade of three water wheels in Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP

Different ways of using the flow: A storehouse for Apples and other seasonal fruits, built on the top of a stream, which acts like a natural AC Photo: SANDRP

Different ways of using the flow: A storehouse for Apples and other seasonal fruits, built on the top of a stream, which acts like a natural AC Photo: SANDRP

Fresh fruits, preserved in a storehouse on the stream! Photo: SANDRP

Fresh fruits, preserved in a storehouse on the stream! Photo: SANDRP

HYDROPOWER IN BHUTAN

At the same time, huge, unprecedented hydropower developing is also challenging the tiny nation. Much of it is pushed by India.

Planned, underconstruction and commissioned hydropower projects may cover all the river systems in Bhutan. Photo: Down to Earth from CEA

Planned, underconstruction and commissioned hydropower projects may cover all the river systems in Bhutan. Photo: Down to Earth from CEA

Bhutan was in news as it was the first foreign country to which the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit in June 2014. While he laid the foundation stone of the the 600 MW Khonglongchu Project, protests erupted in downstream Assam, India. Assam had suffered flood losses mainly in 2004 when the 60 MW Kurichhu Project, built by NHPC, released flood waters which reached Indian territory. Same fears are now expressed for Mangdechu and Konglongchu Projects. On July 9, 2014, The Times of India reported that Assam state BJP unit (BJP is in power at the centre), “They (BJP state leaders) also told Pandey (BJP all-India chief for morchas and cells Mahendra Pandey) that even Modi’s foundation laying for a 600-MW power station in Bhutan last month was not taken with enthusiasm by the people in Lower Assam districts because they were already affected by the impact of existing power projects in the Himalayan country.”

In 2006, India and Bhutan signed an agreement to “facilitate and promote development and construction of hydropower projects and associated transmission systems as well as trade in electricity, through both public and private sector engagements”. Under this agreement, India has agreed to minimum imports of 5,000 MW of hydropower capacity by 2020. The agreement will be valid for a period of 60 years and can be extended. In addition to this agreement, a protocol between India and Bhutan was signed in 2009 through which India will develop 10,000 MWs of hydropower in Bhutan for export of surplus power to India by 2020. This has been going on through a mix of soft loans and grants. This also means services for Indian engineering and design consultants like WAPCOS and Indian developers & contractors like L and T, NHPC, Gammon India, JP Associates, BHEL, SJVN, THDC, Tatas, HCC, Jindal, etc.[1] Indian companies like NHPC, WAPCOS are also involved in Detailed Project Reports, while other Indian companies are bagging the construction and equipment contracts.[2]

Already, three hydro projects funded and built by India are operating in Bhutan which include 336 MW Chukha, 60 MW Kurichu and 1020 MW Tala HEP.  Under-construction projects funded mainly by India include 1200 MW Punatsangchhu HE Project Stage-I, 1020 MW Punatsangchu Stage II and 720 MW Mangdechu HEP. News reports indicate that Bhutan and Indian government have together identified 10 HEPs with a total capacity of 11,576 MW by 2020 for development. In addition the country has about 16 operating HEPs[3].

Punatsangchu I Project, 130 mts high dam, envisages submergence of 673 acres of Reserve forest land, 78 acres of private land (involving 116 land owners) and 6 acres of Institutional Land (2 institutions) till the end of April 2013 for the project construction. Punatsangchu II project with 80 mts high dam, involves 479 acres of reserve forest land, 14 acres of private land (involving 17 land owners) and 5 acres of Institutional Land (3 institutions) till the end of April 2013 for the project construction.

In 2014, India and Bhutan also signed an agreement for 2120 MW hydropower capacity through four projects which include 600 MW Kholongchu project, 180 MW Bunakha project (with 230 MW downstream benefits from Tala, Chukha and Wangchu HEPs), 570 MW Wangchu project, and 770 MW Chamkarchu-I project.[4]

SANDRP visited the site of Punatsangchu I Project which has witnessed serious geological issues, which include severe sinking of the right bank, throwing the project off schedule and also increasing its cost. Similar geological surprises are also feared at Punatsangchu II Site. 

Following are some pictures from Punatsangchu I Site.

DSC08051

Riparian farming on a tributary of Punatsangchu Photo: SANDRP

 

Coffer dam and diversion of PSHP I Project Photo: SANRP

Coffer dam and diversion of PSHP I Project Photo: SANDRP

Dam Axis of PSHP I Photo: SANDRP

Dam Axis of PSHP I Photo: SANDRP

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Diverted River, dry and without flows Photo: SANDRP

Diverted River, dry and without flows Photo: SANDRP

Huge muck disposal next to the river bank near the intake chambers Photo: SANDRP

Huge muck disposal next to the river bank near the intake chambers Photo: SANDRP

L and T India is the main contractor for Dam Wall

L and T India is the contractor for construction of Diversion Tunnel, Dam, intake and Desilting Chambers Dam Wall Photo: SANDRP

Gammon India is contractor for 7.48 kms Head Race Tunnel. Bharat Heavy Electricals and HCC are also contractors in PSHP I Photo: SANDRP

Gammon India is contractor for 7.48 kms Head Race Tunnel. Bharat Heavy Electricals and HCC are also contractors in PSHP I Photo: SANDRP

Stretch of Punatsangchu River that will be diverted through the tunnel when the dam is commissioned Photo: SANDRP

Stretch of Punatsangchu River that will be diverted through the tunnel when the dam is commissioned Photo: SANDRP

Baso Chhu River, entirely dried as it is diverted for the 66 MW BasoChhu Power Project of Druk Green  Photo: SANDRP

Baso Chhu River, entirely dried as it is diverted for the 66 MW BasoChhu Power Project of Druk Green Photo: SANDRP

The concept of Six Longevities celebrated in the Bhutan: They include Man, Animals, Birds ( black Necked Cranes!), Montains, Trees and Rivers! Let us hope all these components are indeed conserved for long Photo: At Punakha Monastery, SANDRP

The Six symbols of Longevity celebrated in Bhutan ( also Tibet). Photo: At Punakha Monastery, SANDRP

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In almost all Dzongs, as well as hotels and homes rests a picture of Six Symbols of Longevity ( see picture above), all of them are interlinked, hold symbolic significance and are supposed to be auspicious.

They include Man, Animals, Birds ( The Black Necked Cranes, incidentally threatened by an Indian Dam: 780 MW Nyamjangchu, close to Bhutanese border), Mountains, Trees and Rivers!

Let us hope this synergy is long-lived in Bhutan!

-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

( All pictures by author)

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END NOTES and References:

[1] http://www.projectsmonitor.com/daily-wire/india-and-bhutan-sign-for-hydropower-projects/

[2] http://www.adb.org/Documents/RRPs/BHU/37399-BHU-RRP.pdf

[3] http://www.lntecc.com/homepage/common/p58.htm

[4] http://www.kuenselonline.com/two-indian-companies-win-supply-contracts/#.U4hkWvmSz6c

[5] Samir Mehta’s blog on Hydropower Challenges in Bhutan: http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/257/bhutan-s-picture-of-gross-national-happiness-blurs

[6] Emmanuel Theophilus’s article on Fish Ladder in Kurichhu Dam in Bhutan published on SANDRP Blog:https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/fish-ladder-at-kurichhu-hydropower-project-bhutan-some-thoughts/

[7] Sector Study of Bhutan’s Hydropower by World Bank: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2007/12/9425448/bhutan-hydropower-sector-study-opportunities-strategic-options

[8] ADB pushing for Hydropower in Bhutan, also for storage projects, which have huge impacts! http://www.adb.org/features/bhutan-s-hydropower-sector-12-things-know?ref=countries/bhutan/features

[9] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/Consult-us-before-decisions-on-Assam-state-BJP-to-Centre/articleshow/38014748.cms

 

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