Bhutan banks on 'white gold' hydropower


Here in isolated kingdom of Bhutan, cascading waterfalls and winding rivers are a common and spectacular sight.

But they are also known as the country's "white gold" for powering its fast-growing economy.

Bhutan's hydropower plants harness Himalayan water flows to generate the country's electricity, with a large surplus sold to its giant neighbour India.

It is turning a little-developed nation into an emerging Asian powerhouse.

SOUNDBITE 1 Chhewang Rinzin (man), Druk Green Power Corporation (English, 21 sec):

"About 30, 40 years back we realised that this mountains afforded us a huge opportunity, that there was a lot of water that was coming down from the mountains, the snow melt, the glaciers that they have uphill, and then the monsoonal rains that we get, a lot of water flows through our rivers."

Hydropower has lit up most of Bhutan, from its growing urban areas to even remote settlements.

In this village about three hours from the capital, mushroom farmer Karma says their home got electricity just 10 years ago, making it lighter, cleaner and better connected.

It's a rapid change for a country that only allowed TV in 1999.

SOUNDBITE 2 Karma Dendup (man), mushroom farmer (English, 9 sec):

"Almost every household has their own TV. And then they are now more informed... of course they might not know about the other parts of the world but they're more informed about their country."

Donor-dependent Bhutan now hopes hydropower can turn it into a self-sufficient country.

Funded by India, it is building new projects to generate 10,000 megawatts of electricity for export -- nearly seven times its current amount.

But construction work here is mostly done by Indians, and some fear hydropower cannot create the jobs Bhutan sorely needs.

SOUNDBITE 3 Kencho Wangdi (man), political analyst (English, 21 sec):

"While the hydropower project is there, I think what the Bhutanese government is doing is they are putting all their eggs in one basket. What I'm trying to say is, they should also focus on other areas, other economic areas. For example there are so many things that this government can do, create new jobs."

Here at Chukha, Bhutan's first major hydropower plant, these murals are testament to the unique culture of the country.

Bhutan is the world's only nation to measure Gross National Happiness and a key element of this is protecting the environment.

So far hydropower has caused minimal damage, but some are wary of the rush of big new projects. The long term impact of climate change is also unclear.

SOUNDBITE 4 Tenzing Lamsang (man), editor, The Bhutanese newspaper (English, 12 sec):

"We are not very sure about the levels of waters in the rivers because all depend on glaciers which are retreating quite rapidly, and also depends on snowfall and rainfall which is becoming quite erratic."

The Bhutanese are hoping for regular water flows to keep their economy buoyant.



- VAR of waterfall

- WS of river

- VAR of water pumped into dam

- Inside the Chukha hydro-powerhouse, man watching water flow

- CU of water flowing under grids

- CU of temperature gauge

- WS of turbine


- Lit up dzong in capital Thimphu

- WS of Thimphu at night

- GV of Geneka village

- Karma Dendup watching TV at home with children

- Tilt down from light to TV

- CU of Dendup's daughter


- WS of monastery and Chukha electricity switchyard

- VAR of switchyard

- Indian labourers by Bhutan roadside

- CU of two women workers

- VAR of Indian labourers sitting together


- VAR mural of Buddha's lifecycle on Chukha powerhouse wall

- MS of decorated unit in powerhouse

- VAR of staff talking

- CU of dragon mural


- MS of waterfall with prayer flags fluttering

- CU of prayer flags with water gushing behind




Bhutan banks on 'white gold' hydropower

/ Chukha (Bhutan) - 07 July 2013 - AFP (Rachel O'BRIEN) / FEATURE

Home to meditating monks and Himalayan nomads, the sleepy kingdom of Bhutan has set its sights on becoming an unlikely energy powerhouse thanks to its abundant winding rivers.

Hydropower plants have already harnessed the country's water flows to light up nearly every Bhutanese home, generating electricity that is sent to remote villages by cables strung through rugged mountain terrain.

It is a rapid transformation for the long isolated nation, where less than a quarter of households had electricity in 1999 -- the same year Bhutan became the last country to introduce television.

But the kingdom now has much greater ambitions for renewable hydropower -- already its biggest export -- which it hopes will provide more than half of its gross domestic product by the end of the decade.

"It is the white gold for Bhutan today," said Chhewang Rinzin, managing director of state-owned Druk Green Power Corporation, which runs the country's hydropower sector.

Bhutan's first megaproject, opened in the southwestern Chukha district in the 1980s, is now one of four major plants which between them have almost 1,500 megawatt capacity -- at peak output roughly equivalent to a large nuclear power station, and only five percent of Bhutan's hydropower potential.

Already going far beyond domestic needs in summer months, when monsoon rains fill up the rivers, most of the electric power is sold to India, Bhutan's giant energy-hungry neighbour.

In cooperation with the Indian government, and funded by its grants and loans, the kingdom is now aiming to reach capacity of 10,000 megawatts by 2020 through the building of 10 new plants.

In contrast, politically deadlocked and once war-wracked Nepal has just 700 megawatts of installed capacity, despite being among the top potential hydropower producers in the world according to the World Bank.

"India we see as a market that cannot be satisfied," Rinzin said of the demand for Bhutan's natural resource, which is driving economic growth estimated by the Asian Development Bank at 8.6 percent this year.

While hydropower is hailed as the country's ticket to self-sufficiency after years of depending on donors, there are reservations about the speed and scale of its development while other sectors of the economy lag behind.

One of the first new plants being built, the Punatsangchhu I project, is projected to cost about two billion dollars -- more than Bhutan's total gross domestic product. And there are nine more projects to complete.

"While no one disputes that harnessing hydropower energy is the way to go, there is concern that Bhutan is trying to do too much, too soon," said an April editorial in the national Kuensel newspaper, titled "Drowning in hydropower".

At the Chukha plant, colourful murals depicting the Buddha's life-cycle contrast with the whirring machinery but hint at the country's unique development model of pursuing "Gross National Happiness" (GNH).

Retaining Bhutan's Buddhist cultural identity and protecting the environment are key parts of the GNH philosophy, which aims to balance the financial advancement of the nation with spiritual well-being.

The existing hydropower schemes are all "run of the river" sorts that depend on natural water supplies rather than large reservoirs, designed to cause less disruption to their surroundings.

But three reservoir dams have been proposed among the upcoming projects to ensure plentiful water in the rain-free and freezing winter months, when power output currently drops by about three-quarters.

Rinzin says Bhutan's steep and sparsely-populated valleys will suffer much less impact than areas affected by big Indian or Chinese reservoirs -- the number of households displaced is in the hundreds rather than thousands.

But Samir Mehta, South Asia programme director at US-based watchdog International Rivers, expressed concern at a lack of transparency around the proposals and their impact. "The level of public engagement is not known," he said.

He warned that hydropower plants also face serious threats from climate change, given Bhutan's susceptibility to floods from lakes formed high in the mountains by melting glaciers.

In the capital Thimphu, people have other concerns on their mind about hydropower's rise, sometimes described as "jobless growth".

Despite its dominance in Bhutan, Druk Green has a staff of only 1,800, expected to rise to no more than 6,000, in a country where unemployment is a growing worry among its youthful population of 736,000.

The construction phase is more labour-intensive, but only 10 to 15 percent of these jobs are going to the Bhutanese by Rinzin's calculation, as most of the building work is carried out and overseen by Indians.

"It's money in and money out," said Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese newspaper. "Your own companies are not making the money that they should."

The kingdom, which is holding its second parliamentary elections after shifting to democracy in 2008, is already hugely dependent on India for imports and soaring demand led it to run out of Indian rupee supplies last year.

Many think the flurry in hydropower development, and subsequent demand for costly imported equipment and machinery, exacerbated the crisis.

While he believes in hydropower's long-term benefits for Bhutan, Lamsang says the financial and environmental concerns show that it should not be relied upon to the cost of other industries.

"The danger here is that we put all our eggs in one basket. If the basket does fall or something happens to the basket, then we're in for a lot of trouble."