Can Bhutan Achieve Hydropowered Happiness?

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New York Times, Thimphu, Bhutan

Is democracy good for the environment? Bhutan — a small, landlocked kingdom perched in the Himalaya between China and India, and a recent convert to democracy – is the latest test case.

Bhutan is best known for its official pursuit of Gross National Happiness, or “GNH” as everyone there calls it for short. Steeped in Buddhism, and ruled until recently by what can best be described as an enlightened monarchy, the country’s government operates under the philosophy that economic growth and other policies are but the means to an end – that end being the contentment of its citizens.

But how has the policy fared since 2008, when the country – as the result of a decree by the former king – turned democratic? What is happiness, for that matter, and how do you achieve it? More to the point, how do you pay for it? Because while money may not be able to buy happiness, it sure does help, and the lack of it can bring misery.

The answer to the latter question seems to be predominantly by selling India electricity generated by dams – Bhutan’s largest source of foreign exchange. Bhutan requires about 300 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity but currently has 1,480 MW. The huge surplus in electricity, particularly in the wet season, is exported to India. In the winter dry season, hydroelectric generation plummets to the point at which Bhutan needs to import electricity from India. Now, Bhutan plans to build an array of new dams and quickly ramp up hydropower capacity to 10,000 MW by 2020 – a goal that is becoming increasingly controversial.

Journalists inspect the tunnel system for a hydroelectric power project in Bhutan.
Journalists inspect the tunnel system for a hydroelectric power project in Bhutan.

Meanwhile, the newly empowered citizens of Bhutan are still grappling with what GNH actually means – or perhaps not, because one of the first things you learn from the Bhutanese is that they don’t pay it much mind. “GNH is a nice policy and the former PM talked about it a lot, but people are focused on making their daily living,” explained Tashi Dorji, a local journalist, echoing the views of many of his colleagues.

“People take GNH for granted,” said Dawa T. Wangchuk, a reporter for Business Bhutan. “The government provides us with free healthcare and free education. It allows people to relax a bit more and work less hard. But we don’t know any other way and so some people treat it complacently.”

“Outsiders have romanticized the idea,” added Dorji. ”But for Bhutanese, GNH is a way of life.”

Indeed, Bhutan has a healthy welfare state. You don’t see the kind of grinding urban poverty there that you do in other South Asian countries. Even seemingly remote rural areas have electricity, and the protection of cultural and natural heritage is clearly a high national priority. People are required to wear traditional dress at formal gatherings. A decree that 60 percent of the country must be covered by forests is enshrined in the constitution.

All in all, Bhutan comes across as a well-governed country. This is particularly true when it comes to corruption: it ranks 33rd out of 176 countries — much better than its neighbors — on the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index from the nonprofit watchdog Transparency International. “There is corruption, for instance in the form of favoritism and nepotism – you find that everywhere — but we don’t have the kind of naked bribery you see elsewhere,” Wangchuk told me.

But the pursuit of “happiness” may have been taken to an extreme by the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Jigme Y. Thinley. Invoking GNH, his government passed a string of paternalistic laws and policies.  Sale of tobacco and tobacco products was and still is banned. So was the use of plastic bags, and the sale of meat during religious holidays (which can stretch for as long as a month). “People were suffering from the tobacco sales ban,” said one journalist, who added that they did not realize that they’ll suffer much more if they should come down with lung cancer.

Cars were heavily taxed and their use was banned all over the country on Tuesdays, declared a Pedestrian Day. When that proved too disruptive, the rule was shifted to the first Sunday of every month – this in a country that does not have a single traffic light.

Clearly, Bhutan is ruled from the top down: GNH and even democracy itself were installed by the country’s leaders. It’s a nanny state, having more in common with Singapore in terms of governance than its local neighbors. And that can be good for the environment, if the rules aimed at protecting it are crafted smartly.

But blanket bans on destructive practices often don’t work, and earlier this year the people of Bhutan rebelled – at the ballot booth. National elections yielded a shocking result, with the previous government thrown out. Many of its policies were quickly overturned. Pedestrian Day was one of the first initiatives to go.

What about hydropower, which is billed as a sustainable form of electricity generation because it produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels? (The Bhutanese state enterprise that oversees the projects even calls itself Green Power.) There are increasing misgivings about the plans for massive expansion, in part because they are sodependent on India, which is providing most of the financing, whose companies have most of the construction contracts, and which will receive most of the electricity. AsDown To Earth magazine has reported, there are concerns that the financing terms India is providing could put Bhutan into a “debt trap”.

A group of reporters visited the Punatsangchhu projects on the Punakha River last month, as part of a field trip with thenewly launched Bhutan Forum of Environmental Journalists, where they got a tour of one of the two run-of-the-river dams being built there. Once completed, they are expected to produce over 2,000 MW in the wet season, but roughly 15 percent of that in the dry season.

The dam builders have tried to address one of the problems with traditional dams by designing projects that divert water through tunnels to power turbines rather than constructing large reservoirs, and by capturing silt and sending it back into the riverbeds. But there are more questions than answers when it comes to the environmental impacts.

What will happen to a couple of endangered species found in the river valley — the white-bellied heron and the golden mahseer, a fish whose breeding site upstream of where the second project will release water from its tunnel, possibly impeding migration?

Will there be enough water flowing in the riverbed during the low season to maintain its ecology? How comprehensive was the environmental impact statement, which was drafted by an Indian consulting firm called WAPCO (for Water and Power Company) as part of its feasibility study for the project?

There are even more environmental questions about theSunkosh project downstream, which will create a large reservoir, potentially displacing many more people.

More broadly, will the hydropower construction in Bhutan continue under a more democratic government? Large dams and democracy generally don’t go well together, as projects – especially those that displace many people or flood important landscapes – generate strong protests.

“Democracy is new to Bhutan and people still aren’t used to speaking out,” says Dorji, but that may change in time.

And how will other key environmental policies fare? The journalists I met with say there has been a steady increase in conflicts between people and wildlife. (While I was there a woman was attacked by a bear.) There have been deadly encounters with wasps, and fields are frequently attacked by everything from monkeys to boars. In most countries, this would be ascribed to the spread of agriculture into formerly wild lands, but the journalists claim the root cause in Bhutan is the spread of forests.

The fact is that the onset of democracy is not universally good for the environment. The democratization of Cambodia and Indonesia in the 1990s, for instance, led to rampant deforestation, as logging firms exploited dubious governance to gain large concessions or simply cut illegally.

Overall, I believe democracy is good for the environment. It is particularly important in generating public pressure to pass and enforce laws against pollution and toxic waste. But many environmental policies also require the public to alter their behavior in inconvenient ways, or restrict the activities of powerful interests, who can effectively oppose them even if they generate broad gains for the populace.

In Bhutan, it’s easy to envision a more democratic society able to debate the proper role of hydroelectric dams, of finding ways to maintain forest cover while limiting human conflicts with wildlife, and regulating traffic to make a pedestrian-friendly city. That ultimately should form the road to happiness, even if the ride getting there could be a bit bumpy.