Bhutan unceremoniously eschewed traditional economic indicators in the 1970’s. Gross domestic product was seen as just another number that sought to steal the future and sell it in the present. In line with their Buddhist principles, the Wangchuck Monarchy instead decided to measure the population’s well-being and happiness. Given this distinct approach, in the past decade there has been much interest, intrigue and debate surrounding Bhutan’s index of Gross National Happiness. But the ecological landscape is changing rapidly.

Bhutan, mostly a highland country with China to the north and India to its south, is well on its way to becoming a modern hydropower-driven economy. Many commentators have argued that a shift from a largely agriculture- and tourism-driven state to one with huge ambitions to dam its rivers for hydropower generation is incongruous with its spiritual aspirations and notions of happiness. But the present government of Bhutan, though willing to deliberate, is disinclined to negotiate about its plans to generate 10,000 megawatts by 2020. For more, check out our Bhutan Rivers Watch page. 

As of early 2014, less than a fifth of this target has been met; the country remains an electricity importer in winter during the lean river flow season. While Bhutan’s energy woes are genuine, so are the concerns that there won’t be enough flow in certain river stretches to maintain the ecology and teeming biodiversity in the region.

Many questions remain unanswered.    

  • What will happen to the white bellied heron?
  • Will the golden mahseer disappear entirely when dams impede migration?
  • How will destructive dam projects impact indigenous populations and the needs of communities living downstream? 
The white bellied heron
The white bellied heron
Ritwick Dutta

The drawback in this hasty undertaking to boost its economy and supply electricity to energy-ravenous India is that the environmental governance systems of checks and balances are missing. There are no environmental impact assessments of projects in the public domain, and there is a not yet a vocal civil society or sizeable presence of non-governmental organizations that may assist in independent scrutiny of hydel projects. In 2007, Bhutan passed the Civil Society Organizations Act to permit establishment and registration, but currently the government funds the only organizations that exist. The country’s administrators don’t want to be told that dam building is not in their best interest. Yet, the country is at a crossroads and there are existing alternate sustainable solutions to energy security that need be considered whilst initiating an Integrated Resources Planning approach. Bhutan must realize that decisions today will have a bearing on this striking landscape and ecosystem for years to come.

In Bhutan, International Rivers is working to raise awareness of social and environmental impacts of hydropower development. Access to information is a concern; the Government as well as private builders must better disseminate project details. We are also advocating for the principle of free, prior and informed consent to give the community rights to give or withhold consent to projects. Moreover our involvement in the country will extend to assist in improving the environmental governance mechanisms, ensuring adequate social and environmental safeguards, and contribute towards evolving a policy on strategic environment assessment and environmental flow release downstream of a dam. 

For more details and updates regarding our work in the region, check out the Bhutan Rivers Watch page.