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New dams may pose risk to Bhutan's ecology

May 05, 2010

The construction of large dams on some rivers in Bhutan to generate sizeable amount of electricity is expected to have serious repercussions on the natural environment of Bhutan and India. Little data about dams and their impacts in the public domain is also a serious concern among environmentalists.

Thimphu: A quiet development has been taking place in the kingdom of Bhutan that in due course would have wide ranging implications for that country as well as her bigger southern neighbour. Large dams are being built in some of the rivers to generate substantial amount of electricity to be fed into India’s national grid.

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Not so well known is the impact the massive structures would have on the natural environment of Bhutan and in the densely populated Indian plains below.

Only recently the Indian premier laid the foundation of two new projects – the 990 MW Punatsangchhu II hydroelectric project, and the 720 MW Mangdechhu hydroelectric project. The first is expected to annually generate 4214.56 GWh and the latter 2923.70 GWh of electricity. It is certain that the power generated will go some way to fulfil India’s power deficit that has been growing significantly.

According to a study by an international organisation, the total claimed potential of hydropower in Bhutan is close to 24,000 MW of which the capacity already developed stands at 1,488 MW. The report mentions that nearly 93% of the potential is yet to be exploited.

On the other hand, Bhutan with its limited scope for earning revenue will also have a steady source which in time would only increase. Bhutan, sources informed, is keen that India purchases more than 5,000 MW of electricity by 2020.

What has emerged as a matter of concern is the fact that very little data about the dams, and their possible impacts are there in the public domain. Some environmentalists in Assam believe that information on dams on rivers reaching the state should be made available to India, so that the worst case scenarios can at least be visualised.

Bibhuti Lahkar of the biodiversity group Aaranyak said that dams in the fragile Himalayan zone can create serious problems. Although he did not specify it, water released from the Kurichu dam had inundated large tracts in Assam causing large scale damage to settlements and agriculture in the recent past.

Others fear that the dams being built in Bhutan might not have adequate safety measures to gain immunity from cloudburst or earthquakes. The fact that there is a dearth of data about the dams in the public domain adds to their discomfiture.

Sources in Bhutan while discounting the fears of dams causing harm in the plains down south agreed that important information about the dam should be put in public domain. A few of them said that influx of many workers in the dam site could be a problem as their presence could have an adverse impact on the local populations who have never been exposed to such cultural forces.

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