Tracking Glaciers & Rivers in Bhutan

Posted by on Jul 23, 2015

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A free flowing stretch of the Punatsangchhu river where two large hydropower projects are under construction. They are scheduled to be commissioned by 2018.

A free flowing stretch of the Punatsangchhu river where two large hydropower projects are under construction. They are scheduled to be commissioned by 2018. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

Less than a decade back Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. Although right to information was enshrined in their constitution, availing reports and info concerning glaciers, health of rivers and status of hydropower projects remains a challenge to this day. Most government reports are neither published, nor readily uploaded on to websites, and therefore seldom available for public consumption. Keeping this in mind, we at the South Asia program of International Rivers, a nonprofit, compiled ‘Bhutan Rivers Watch’, a one-stop repository of blogs, reports, analysis and latest news from the Himalayan kingdom.

Bhutan, a global hot spot of hydropower development, has 76 identified dam sites with a potential to generate 23,760-megawatts. Most of these projects are in the planning stage, while Bhutan looks to expedite undertakings that will take them towards the 10,000-megawatt mark in the next decade. These interventions will make significant changes in the riverine and physical environment.

Bhutanese rivers are glacier fed, and it is estimated that glaciers cover approximately 1,300 square kilometers of sovereign territory. The Government has been tracking changes in climate by monitoring precipitation, glacial melt, and the changing hydrology of the main river basins. At a meeting organized by International Rivers in Bhutan last year, we learned from officials that glaciers are receding 20-30 meters each year, and in some cases there has been a 75-cm thinning of the ice sheet. But what is most worrisome for the scientific community, and decision makers, is the occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods.

In the mid 1980’s Bhutan and India conducted joint surveys of glaciers and glacial lakes and concluded that there

Bharat Lal Seth during a 2014 trip to Bhutan

Bharat Lal Seth during a 2014 trip to Bhutan. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

was no danger to downstream communities. But sadly a glacial lake outburst killed more than 20 people in October 1994, as a raging wall of water wreaked havoc in the upper reaches of the Punatsangchhu River basin. Since then many field studies have been conducted, and the government of Bhutan has been monitoring the glaciers and glacial lakes to ascertain potential impacts on hydropower dams as well as communities living near the river. We now know that more than 20 outburst floods have occurred in the past two hundred years.

According to a 2012 conference held in Thimphu, the nation’s capital, 25 glacial lakes have been identified as ticking time bombs and potentially dangerous. Given the remote locations, officials of the government of Bhutan travel often 3 days by foot to monitor these glacial lakes. These floods could cause dam breaks, which would be catastrophic not just in Bhutan, but also more than a hundred kilometers downstream in India.

We know it is important to keep people in the loop regarding decisions that impact river health and public safety. This lies at the heart of our efforts, and we’ve dedicated an entire page to tracking planned, under construction and commissioned hydropower projects in Bhutan. To view the latest status of projects, click here.

The South Asia team of International Rivers visited Bhutan in 2014 along with dam and energy experts from India

The South Asia team of International Rivers visited Bhutan in 2014 along with dam and energy experts from India. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

The seventh article of the Bhutanese Constitution declares: “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. Yet, impact assessment studies, for instance, aren’t available in public domain, and as a result there is little public debate and scrutiny on how climate change, receding glaciers and glacial lakes can impact infrastructure such as dams and hydropower projects. This is because of supporting clauses in the constitution that state: “All persons in Bhutan shall have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Article, subject to section 22 of this Article and procedures prescribed by law.” This section establishes notions of sovereignty, security, unity, integrity, and peace as justifiable reasons for non-disclosure of information.

How hydropower projects will impact downstream riverine communities, besides land and aquatic biodiversity, are of national importance. The ‘Bhutan Rivers Watch’ page is an attempt to compile related information, which we intend to update periodically.

Bharat Lal Seth is the South Asia Program Coordinator of International Rivers based in New Delhi. His twitter handle is @lalseth, and he can be contacted at bseth@internationalrivers.org

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One Comment

  1. Really This Hydro Power project will be the great achievement for all Bhutanese.

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