Massive Dam Complex Threatens Bhutan’s Philosophy

The kingdom of Bhutan, whose now-abdicated monarch Jigme Singy Wangchuk won the admiration of the world’s environmentalists by weaving sustainable development, environmental and cultural preservation and good governance into his governing philosophy, now has raised alarms because of a plan to dam numerous rivers and export the power to neighboring countries as a method of lifting the kingdom out of poverty.

The regime in the capital Thimpu governs one of Asia’s most intriguing countries, with its snow-dipped Himalayan mountains, maroon-robed monks, given the formerly absolute monarch’s voluntary decision to bequeath democracy to his people and the plan to measure well-being through what Jigme called Gross National Happiness rather than development – until now.

Bhutan, like Laos, sees itself as having the potential to be one of Asia’s “batteries” by building 12 hydropower dams with a combined capacity of 10,000 megawatts by 2020, with the power shipped mostly to India. With annual per capita gross domestic product on a purchasing power parity basis equivalent of US$9,000, the rugged terrain limits industrial production to tourism – which the government restricts – and cottage industries and agriculture. Hydropower exports to India comprise 40 percent of exports and 25 percent of GDP. At that, the country taps only 6.5 percent of its potential.

But dams wreck river ecosystems, destabilize riverbeds, require the creation of access roads through what was often previously remote wilderness, and they flood valleys that are home to often indigenous people—something that requires costly relocation plans.

A prime example of this is the huge Santosh Dam, which in addition to creating a massive reservoir is also rumored to require the construction of an “unbridgeable” 141-km canal that will cut right through India’s Buxa Tiger Reserve on its way to power stations in West Bengal.

Critics are concerned whether the proposed mega-dams are putting a damper on the alleged world-renowned happiness of Bhutan’s people. In fact, according to a 2018 UN report, Bhutan now ranks 97th among “happy countries” of the world. Is it all because of a string of mega-dams plugging up mountain canyons?

The big question is whether Bhutan can sustain its dedication to environmental sustainability in the face of the hydropower construction. That answer is that so far, it seems to be holding up. Hydroelectric dams are massively disruptive to societies, probably all the more true of more traditional societies that still scrape together a living off the land.

Wedged between India and Tibet, this is still a place where tigers, snow leopards, clouded leopards, and common leopards compete for a dazzling array of prey species such blue sheep, takin, and goral, while Tibetan wolves lurk in the shadows. Some 770 species of birds soar through the crystal skies. Elephants stand tall above the rest, while red pandas—believed to be the reincarnation of monks with their red coats—roam the tree canopies in ever-decreasing numbers, and Indian one-horned rhinoceros may occasionally cross over the border into Bhutan from India.

In severe decline throughout the rest of its range, the golden mahseer “good luck fish” continues to thrive in the rivers of this small kingdom – although the construction of yet more dams could change its fortune here. At a time when great freshwater species are in rapid decline across the globe, it is heartening to know that some are holding up well in far-flung Bhutan.

On land, the king of the jungle – the Royal Bengal Tiger -- appears to be holding up well, with an estimated 103 individuals prowling the mountains and forests of the country. As a photo essay in The Guardian illustrates, tigers have long held a place in the lives of Bhutanese people, and according to the latest reports, tiger numbers there have doubled since 2010. And yet national park rangers are in a constant battle against tiger poachers both foreign and domestic in the likes of Manas National Park and elsewhere.

But it’s not just tigers that make Bhutan an interesting place for those interested in wild cats. In addition to snow leopards, common leopards, and clouded leopards, the small cats of Bhutan fascinate. Jungle cats, Pallas cats, Golden cats, marbled cats, and leopard cats stalk the trees and forest trails. A felid menagerie such as this is almost without equal on earth.

Known by most as the Yeti, the Bhutanese refer to the abominable snowman of the Himalayas as migoi, or “strong man.” Never photographed convincingly, some Himalayan dwellers believe that one’s soul must be ready to see migoi, otherwise they remain invisible to people—which is similar to what the Kuba people of Sumatra say about the tropical yeti of that region, the orang pendek. In Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti, Kunzung Choden describes a way to make the migoi visible: “We were told that it was possible to see a migoi at will if we could empower our eyes with the tears of an owl. However, we were warned that the owl sheds its years only once in a lifetime just a few days before its death and nothing else will induce it to do this.”

However, the mystery of the upper Himalaya where the migoi supposedly hang on is seeing its share of controversy, as the Chinese military incursion into Doklam illustrates. India intervened in the Chinese road-building endeavor and Beijing appears to have backed down, though some analysts believe that China is waiting it out and playing the long-game in this strategically important region.

Bhutan’s tourism policy, which requires that visitors have to come in groups of four and must spend US$200 per day (though this includes lodging), will ensure that mass tourism doesn’t trample the kingdom’s beauty spots in the foreseeable future. Chinese zero-dollar tours, which have created frustration and controversy in Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere, are unlikely to penetrate Bhutan any time soon.

It seems that Bhutan will remain a land of mystery, with wild cats and other wildlife prowling nearly every corner of the heavily forested country, and with a wise tourism policy set in place. However, the Chinese are likely to continue to chip away at Bhutan’s northern border, and more dams are slated for construction on Bhutan’s wild rivers—something that will forever change the landscape of this country. The King will need to be wise indeed to strike a balance and keep its people happy, develop the economy, and preserve a place the country’s incredible natural heritage.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.