India-Funded Hydro Projects in Bhutan Under Scanner After Sikkim Teesta Disaster: Report

The Wire | October 15, 2023

Environmental activist and water and dam safety expert Himanshu Thakkar told The Hindu that the likely change in design is an “admission of a major failure by these agencies”.

New Delhi: After the Sikkim Teesta disaster that resulted in the destruction of the 1,200 MW Teesta-III dam and left nearly 100 people dead, two of the three India-funded mega hydro projects currently being constructed in Bhutan have now come under the scanner and changes are being made in their design, reported The Hindu on Sunday, October 15.

The two projects are the 1,200 MW Punatsangchhu Stage-I (Puna-I) and the 1,020 MW Punatsangchhu Stage-II (Puna-II), on the Punatsangchhu River, less than 100 km from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Per The Hindu, the projects, along with the 660 MW Kholongchu project, are estimated to cost ₹21,637.28 crore, and are being funded by India and will benefit northern and eastern Indian states.

Per the report, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) uploaded a note in February this year (and updated in August) on the projects completed, being constructed, and pursued under a 2006 agreement on cooperation in the field of hydroelectric power signed between the two countries.

Per the CEA note, the Puna-I is expected to be commissioned in 2024-25, but that the commissioning is being delayed “due to movement/subsidence of right bank hill mass in the dam area”. It also added that: “Treatment/stabilisation of the right bank and completion of dam work under progress. The option of providing a barrage in the upstream and abandoning of the dam is being studied.”

Per the note, the Puna-II is targeted for commissioning in 2023-24. The Hindu reported that as per the note, “remedial measures are under progress” and that there were “poor geological strata and shear zone” at the left bank and foundation of the dam and its head race tunnel (which connects the water intake at a dam site to the powerhouse for hydropower generation).

Environmental activist and water and dam safety expert Himanshu Thakkar told The Hindu that the likely change in design is an “admission of a major failure by these agencies”.

International landslide experts like Dave Petley have pointed out that it was “a blunder to start a dam at the location that seems to be on the debris of past landslides”, he also told The Hindu.

The Hindu quoted anonymous Indian government officials as saying that “no final decision has been taken on the Bhutan projects” and that experts were studying the “technical aspects” of the projects including geology.

However, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering told The Hindu that he was confident that the problems would be resolved. Bhutanese technical experts have said that if the dam is not feasible, then probably a smaller dam or barrage is required. On the other hand, Indian government experts have said that the dam is “feasible,” the PM told The Hindu.

According to one estimate, about 75% of all electricity generated in Bhutan is exported to India and the revenue from the exports constitutes 25% of its gross domestic product.

Local communities living in areas near dams in Bhutan have reported similar issues as seen in houses near dams in the Indian Himalaya: cracks on their houses, which first occurred right after the project work for a dam began. For instance, Third Pole reported in 2020 that houses near the Mangdechhu Dam on the Mangdechhu River in Bhutan – commissioned and funded by India. Per one report, it is one of the 13 hydro projects developed as part of Bhutan’s initiative to generate 10GW of hydropower with support from India.