3,460 acres of forest lost to hydropower projects

May 31 | Kuensel
By Phub Dem

Bhutan lost about 3,460 acres of forest cover due to construction of three hydropower projects – Punatsangchhu-I, Punatsangchhu-II, and Mangdechhu.

A study by Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS), “Forest Cover Loss Due to Hydropower Projects and Transmission Lines”, observed that forest cover loss was more due to the establishment of transmission lines than from the construction of infrastructure development.

A total of about 3, 67,052 trees were removed due to three projects construction activities. About 84,504 trees were removed because of various construction activities for PHPA-I project; 86,380 trees removed for PHPA-II, and 1, 96,168 trees for MHPA project.

Although hydropower is considered important for the country’s economy, the study found that the impact on forests and other ecosystems was undeniable.

Dam construction has the largest impact on forest loss. Impacts included displacement of local communities and wildlife due to the accumulation of water in the reservoir.

Forest under transmission lines are cleared as Right of Way (RoW) corridor. In Bhutan, RoW of 52 metres is cleared for 400 kV, 35 metres for 220 kV, 27 metres for 132 kV, and 18 metres for 66 kV transmission line.

Building of any kind of structure is not allowed in transmission line areas.

“High voltage transmission line passing through agriculture land can permanently reduce the area under cultivation,” the study state.

Trees under the transmission lines are not allowed to re-grow; the land is permanently kept tree-less. In such cases, the forest gets converted to grassland. Therefore, when the forest land gets converted to other land use, the stored carbon from the forest is lost. This means carbon sequestration and storage capacity of the forestland is permanently removed.

Roughly about 0.15, 0.11 and 0.31 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was estimated to be emitted from the construction of transmission line under PHPA-I, PHPA-II, and MHPA, respectively.

Besides, 104,422.8 cubic metres of growing stock was estimated to be harvested from various construction activities of PHPA-I project 106,741 cubic metres from PHPA-II, and around 242,407.6 cubic metres from construction activities of MHPA project.

According to the study, forest cover loss was closely related to the selection of sites rather than its generating capacity.

The Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulation of Bhutan (FNCRR) 2017 requires all major hydropower projects to carry out compensatory plantation for State Revolving Fund (SRF) land acquired for project development.

The regulation emphasises on providing adequate funds for carrying out compensatory plantation in twice the area occupied by the project. Further to that, compensatory plantation should not be limited to the project area but may be extended to any potential SRF area.

The amendment of this clause, however, was made only in FNCRR 2017, much later to the inception of these hydropower projects. Therefore, the area of compensatory afforestation requirement does not match to the forest cover loss area.

Kuensel learnt that DoFPS carried out compensatory plantation in 2,450 acres from the fund provided by PHPA-I & II, and MHPA. Further, PHPA-I & II carried out compensatory plantation in about 113 acres by the projects.

However, carrying out compensatory afforestation in twice the area occupied does not apply to the construction of transmission lines although forest cover loss was found more from the establishment of transmission line. The study recommends revision of the clause pertaining to the transmission lines.

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