The other day I was in a taxi shuttling between Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu and the Paro Valley along the Chhu River. I sat cleaved between two ladies in the back seat and as we passed the beautiful 14th century monastery of Thangtong Gyalpo, the woman next to me tipped the last drops of water from a plastic bottle into her mouth and started to roll down the window. The air in my lungs froze and before I could say a word, she’d tossed the bottle out the window.
“What! How could you do that? Why?” I blurted out. She was a peasant woman and the driver kindly translated for me. Everyone in the car was chuckling at my consternation.
“She said it’s OK, it will go into the river,” said the driver.
Only one decade ago, the Bhutanese could throw their waste into the river because it was made of organic materials. But since the country has opened its doors to the world in 1999, a flood of plastic and aluminum coated chip packets, noodle bags,bubble gum wrappers and so on has poured across its borders and into the river systems. It’s incredibly depressing to see the landscape disfigured as litter piles up everywhere in nooks and crannies.
There is a general belief among people that the rivers will sweep the garbage out to India which means it’s no concern of theirs.
Bhutan is famous as the land of Gross National Happiness (GNH) but the royal government still keeps a watchful eye on its gross national product (GNP), as nobody can live on smiles alone. This landlocked country’s number one export is hydroelectricity which generates more than 50% of the country’s gross revenue. This shift to monetizing what was once a sacred river system began in 1966 with the first hydroelectric project in the southern border town of Phuntsholing.
There are still some Bhutanese who believe that messing with rivers is messing with the dakini protectors or naga spirits who inhabit them and worry that the local deities might be brewing up retribution. But for the most part, the Bhutanese are chuffed to have such an effortless and nonpolluting export that also serves to brighten their homes and enables them to hook up their satellite dishes. Hydropower is going to be the key to bringing electricity to every region of the country. The date set for the country to be entirely on the grid is 2020.
Challenges of hydroelectric development
Bhutan is about the size of Pennsylvania or Switzerland, with a landmass of roughly 14,800 square miles. The country lies at a steep angle, draped on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. In the short distance between the parallel latitudes of 26° and 29°N, between its northern border with China and the southern border of India, there is a perennial flow of water through the country’s four major river systems, which carry the annual potential of 30,000 megawatts of energy, before fanning out into the plains of India. To date, less than 2% of the potential of the sacred Wang Chhu, Puna Tsang Chhu, Amo Chhu, and Drangme Chhu rivers have been harnessed.
But partnerships with India have been set up to boost that potential. India has invested hugely in Bhutan’s economy and is the primary consumer of the country’s energy. The Indian government has notably also provided the majority of technical and financial assistance to develop the hydroelectric projects here. If India were to stop buying power from Bhutan, or if output were somehow compromised, the Bhutanese economy would simply shut down.
Glacial lakes – the source of much of the water that comes through the power plants – are being carefully watched by environmentalists as the glacial shelves have been shrinking. The risk of massive flooding and draining of these important lakes appears imminent. There are about 60 natural mountain lakes and a reported 2,674 glacial lakes. Of these about 25 are potential Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) hazards.
Hydroelectric power development also carries other potentially harmful environmental impacts which are well outlined in this piece by Public Radio International.
How to awaken the protective spirit, the innate environmental instinct of the Bhutanese so that development in the country proceeds in a more sustainable manner is the real question. Many have said that education is the key.