Science, Tech & Environment

Bhutan's Hydropower Challenge

By Mary Kay Magistad

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is known for breathtaking views of rivers and streams cascading down from snow-packed glaciers high in the Himalayas. Until recently, Bhutanese were content to enjoy the view, use a little water for crops, and a bit more for hydropower, for local use.

But lately, Bhutan has been getting more ambitious about the prospect of harnessing and selling its hydropower to fuel economic growth. Yeshi Wangdi, director-general of Bhutan's department of energy, said hydropower now generates more than 50 % of the government's gross revenue, through sales to India.

"Considering the enormous potential we have, it promises us this potential of making the country self-reliant," Yeshi Wangdi said. "The faster we can develop hydropower, the better it is for the country."

Bhutan's own energy needs have more than doubled in the past decade. But it's still producing six times more hydropower than it needs. The plan now is to expand hydropower capacity even more, almost eightfold in the next decade, selling most of the surplus to its energy-hunger neighbor, India.

Bhutan is currently reliant on foreign aid. It wants to become self-sufficient, and it sees hydropower as its strongest card to play. Signs of climate change are only adding to the sense of urgency, according to Yeshi Wangdi.

"The government feels the urgency to develop hydropower schemes in an accelerated manner, before the waters become dry," he said. "We expect that to happen in 50 to 60 years. So before that, if we can have all these projects, at least they will have earned all the returns."

With the returns, Bhutan hopes to build up other sectors of its economy, according to Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. "We hope to become a destination for world-class education, as also for health services. We have already begun to promote Bhutan as an IT-enabled knowledge society."

Bhutan is already on a fast track to modernization. The capital, Thimpu, still feels like a big small town, with low-slung buildings and many locals in traditional garb. But since internet and television first came to Bhutan a dozen years ago, a generation has grown up, plugged in. Remote villages have been connected by roads and electricity and mobile phones, and ever more young people are coming to the cities and towns to be educated. They're sticking around, looking for jobs.

The government's hope is to provide those jobs, through its plan to expand and sell hydropower. But the climate is already changing in ways that could affect the supply of hydropower. Sonam Yanglay, Bhutan's Director-General of Mines and Geology, said his teams working in the mountains are seeing some glaciers retreat as much as 100 feet a year.

"That receding rate is really, really high," he said. "At this rate, we recognize that if climate change is not contained at a certain point, countries like ours, where the economy is dependent on hydropower, are going to be very, very badly affected."

It's not just melting glaciers affecting Bhutan's hydropower potential, according to Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a climate change specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal.

"Along with glacial change, also snowfall change will happen," he said. "It's very much suggested that precipitation would be more liquid than solid. So that means the storage will not be there."

Snow 'stores' water and releases it when it melts. If there's less snow and more rain, there's less chance to store water for later use.

So what's an aspiring modern economy to do if it also wants to develop and protect its environment along the way? Preserving uphill forests and wetlands can help store water for future use. So can building reservoirs, as Bhutan plans to do, but there's an environmental cost, said Karma Choepel, water resources coordinator for Bhutan's National Environment Commission.

"It will definitely have an impact on biodiversity, on aquatic ecosystems. So that is where our challenge is."

That's where one of Bhutan's challenges is. The bigger one is its leaders' ambition to modernize, urbanize, educate its population, and transform its economy, all while racing against time — and climate change.

At least they know they're in the race.