The Hydropower Debate

It would have been an exciting week for hydro-power experts with the government saying that as of March 2023, the hydro-power debt stood at Nu 167.74bn, constituting 69.6% of the total external debt and 82.8% of the FY 2022-23 GDP estimate. Adding to it is the amount of hydro-power we have had to import from India this year; from January till April 2023, Bhutan imported 367.17 Mega Units (mu) and the total cost incurred was Nu 1.725 billion, inclusive of transmission losses, charges, fees and trading margin.

Hydro-power was and is essential and Bhutan’s foray into hydro-power began with Indian assistance. The cooperation can be dated to 1961, when the Jaldhaka agreement was signed. Situated on the Indian side of the Indo-Bhutan border in West Bengal, the major part of power produced at Jaldhaka hydro-power plant was exported to southern Bhutan.

A landmark development in Indo-Bhutan hydro-relations was the commissioning of the 336 MW Chukha Hydro-power Project (CHP) in 1987. Bhutan’s first mega power project, it was constructed with 60 percent grant and 40 percent loan at the interest rate of 5 percent payable over a period of 15 years after commissioning. After that came several projects, including the controversial 1,200 MW Punatsangchhu I and 1,020 MW Punatsangchhu II projects, which policy makers say have been delayed  “after encountering poor geological conditions.” It has been debated in the Parliament, but nothing concrete has come out from the discussions. We are now told that Punatsangchhu II would be commissioned soon.

However, what we should not forget is the benefits accrued from hydro-power. Today, 100 percent of Bhutanese homes have access to electricity and the economic and social benefits cannot be even quantified, for it is massive, especially on the social front. Neither can we deny that nothing, starting from charging our phones can be done without energy.  Additionally, hydro-power was Bhutan’s “Good Samaritan” when the Covid 19 pandemic hit us. And if we go back, what did Bhutan have except for hydro-power?

On concerns expressed about the increase in power imported, we should also think what makes Bhutan import during the lean seasons. And the actors here range from a household in the capital, who keep all their rooms warmed during winter to the scores of industries that have come up in the industrial areas and other regions. The heaters are on; it does not matter if there is anyone at home or not.

Further, a country’s energy need rises with development. From this lens, we can say that Bhutan has been and is developing.

If we really do not want to hear about Bhutan importing hydro-power, the government or the Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) can easily do something, which happens in most countries – load shedding. Imagine the public outcry then!

Energy is important and there should be dialogue about it. We are also dejected that we sell for less and pay more when we buy. Punatsangchhu I is an eyesore. But we should also know that agencies like DGPC are equally concerned and that they are working round the clock, for the people and the country. The number of projects DGPC is involved in says everything.

Let the experts handle what we cannot. If there are any constructive recommendation, we are definite that DGPC will listen to us.