The old proverb – ‘A stitch in time saves nine,’ is what Bhutan’s hydropower sector has ignored for a while, especially in the construction of the vital Punatsangchu I and II projects.
In the early days of P I when the PHPA proposed a change in the dam location for higher power generation, the former cabinet, in spite of having seasoned heads enthusiastically agreed without asking for more reports or asking for detailed studies to be done.
Eventually the dam depth turned out to be very deep pushing up the project cost.
Before the project started construction on the new site, the Geological Survey of India said there was weakness on the right bank of the dam location, but here again, the PHPA and its two consultants, WAPCOS and CWC from India ignored the report and went ahead anyhow not wanting any delays.
Ironically that right bank has led to a now six year delay for P I and in the process has considerably pushed up the project costs.
Even when the first slide happened in 2013, despite good advice to get third party experts WAPCOS and CWC took over, and now it seems they have not been able to neutralize the situation within the agreed timeframe. The current government in whose lap the slide problem landed, it seems, at the time, did not want to offend any GoI agency’s institutional ego by getting an external expert.
Bhutan’s political leaders and even our society for that matter have great regard for what external ‘experts and professionals’ tell us. This is okay in certain circumstances but it also does not mean that we ignore common sense or throw all caution to the wind.
The entire country’s economic future is riding on these projects which are already riddled with heavy debt. The ‘traditional bureaucratic wisdom,’ that hydro debts are ‘self liquidating’ may not hold if we are not more careful and continue leaving our future in other more ‘expert’ hands.
For now, it is good that the government has gathered enough gumption and foresight to insist on hiring third party experts to ensure that all stabilization works are not a cosmetic ego fix, which may come apart and cause untold destruction and loss years down the line, in both countries.
Now, the need of the hour is not so much to just complete the projects at an early date, but to ensure that all geological surprises and faults are dealt with comprehensively so that the projects actually last their natural terms.
It is hoped that all hydro related agencies and stakeholders concerned have drawn valuable lessons from the above episode.
It is a good thing to learn caution from the misfortune of others.