Local communities need to benefit more: Hydro Committee Report

Report also asks for better quality Environmental Impact Assessment reports

The Hydropower Committee report has looked at all the social and environmental lessons learnt in Bhutan’s hydropower development and has come up with recommendations to address them.

One of the key social lessons is in terms of taking care of the interests of the local community and also ensuring that they benefit from the project. Another is better social and environmental impact assessment over a longer period of time and accordingly carrying out mitigation measures.

Better Compensation

An important recommendation from the report is that the land and property compensation rates need to be updated.

It says that the current compensation rate for land and property acquisition is as per the PAVA rate 2009. This has always been an issue with the affected peopleas it does not reflect the current market value. Despite the requirement to update the PAVA rate every three years, the last update was done in 2009.

The report acknowledges that the current law or policy on rehabilitation and resettlement have limited provisions for protecting the welfare and livelihoods of those displaced.

It says that in spite of the the lack of a clear legal framework for such issues, the different projects have carried out livelihood support programs for the affected communities.

However, the report points out that with more projects in the pipeline, social policies and legislations regarding affected individuals and communities have to be adopted in order to protect those affected and assist with their economic and social, recovery and development.

This, it says, requires a careful assessment of the economic and social impact of displacement.

Another recommendation of the report is to develop a rehabilitation and resettlement policy for a holistic approach to deal with the issues of not only those who directly lose land and other assets but also those who are affected by such acquisition of assets.

Town planning

Addressing a key issue of lack of proper coordination, the report calls for the integration of the local area’s development with the hydro project itself.

While acknowledging hydropower projects’ significant contributions like building schools, hospitals and farm roads, the report says, that there is no clear framework or system to identify the needs of the local people, and implementthose activities, including those related to enhancing livelihoods.

The report says that it has also become important to ensure that these initiatives do not lead to duplication of plans and programs both at the local and central government level.

It says that in the case of Punatsangchu I and II Projects, the project workers had rented a total of 685 flats out of around 1200 flats constructed in Bajo, Wangduephodrang as the project colonies were still under construction.

This temporary demand led to more people constructing buildings by taking loans from financial institutions. Subsequently, by mid-2013 the owners of buildings in Bajo, appealed to the government that most of the apartments would be vacated once the projects and the colonies were completed.

They had said that it would adversely impact their business and ability to clear the loans.

The report says that while there was no agreement or understanding, let alone any commitment by the projects to hire the buildings of the new Bajo town, this points to planning and coordination gaps within government agencies.

It says that learning from such experiences, the development of Doksum township development is integrated with the Kholongchu project.

The recommendation is for that hydropower development projects to be integrated with the local development plans to optimize the resources and maximize benefits to local communities as required by the hydropower policy. It calls for instituting a mechanism to identify the need of the local people and to streamline the implementation of these initiatives.

Local produce

The report points out that an increase in number of workers during the project construction phase presents significant market opportunities for local communities to sell their agriculture produce.

However, in the absence of an organized system to supply local vegetables and the inability of the local farmers to meet the required demand such opportunity is lost.

As a result,project workers import vegetables and other meat products from Indian vendors across the border.

The recommendation is on the need for coordination and intervention by relevant agencies to ensure that the demand for agricultural produce is met from the locals as far as possible.

Codes on Practice, Health and Safety Performance Standards

The construction of projects, observes the report, impose significant social and environmental impacts due to an influx of high number of foreign workers, often, in remote communities which could potentially lead to spread of communicable diseases, increased pressure on local resources, waste management issues, etc.

It says that the mitigation measures proposed in the current Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are generic and often same throughout the project with little or no tailoring whatsoever to the project sites.

The lack of systematic approach to construction management issues, exacerbated by inadequate compliance framework, has resulted in impacts on the environment and neighboring communities, says the report.

With the expansion of hydropower development, the report says it will also require the development and implementation of stringent measures to ensure safe construction practices give the hazardous working conditions.

It has recommended that codes of practice and health and safety performance standards for good engineering during the construction, be developed.

“While the code of practice could detail out the site-specific environmental and social management plan prior to commencement of the construction activities, the EIAs can focus more on the relevant issues such as landscape and cumulative impact in the case of cascade development, biodiversity, resettlement and rehabilitation, etc.,” says the report.

More comprehensive social and environmental guidelines and long term monitoring

The report says that while studies indicate environmental management in Bhutan in context of hydropower development is at the level of international good practice or better, there are some gaps relating to short and long term impacts that need to be addressed.

It says that the key gaps related to impacts on aquatic biodiversity, environmental flow, code of practices (guidelines for management of environment and social aspects during construction), cumulative impacts, cultural heritage and landscape, livelihoods in social impact assessments, project affected grievances redressal mechanism, disclosure of documents and community consultations, catchment area treatment plan, and a compliance framework.

The solution is to address this through development of a comprehensive hydropower sustainability guidelines for management of Environmental and Social aspects.

The recommendation is that the Department of Hydropower and Power Systems in consultation with NEC, MoAF, MoHCA, GNHC and DGPC should work towards developing sustainability guidelines that not only encompasses the technical and financial but also Environmental and Social aspects on priority as part of review of existing hydropower policy and Electricity Act.

The report calls for long term monitoring of the environmental and social impact beyond the construction period as it says while the environmental impacts during construction are incorporated in the EIA reports and implemented, there are no long term monitoring of impacts during the operation phase.

“Hydropower projects also have multiplier effects and which cannot be ascertained due to lack of adequate baseline data and post project monitoring, in particular, the aquatic biodiversity,” says the report.

It also says that there is also no post project monitoring of people who are displaced by the project on whether they are better off or worse off.

It recommends to strengthen the Environmental Unit at the DGPC and appoint a minimum of one Environmental Officer in each plant with primary mandate to ensure long term monitoring of the impacts so that the experiences gained could be incorporated in the future projects.

Furthermore, the report says there is a need to institute post-monitoring mechanism to assess and record the affect on aquatic biodiversity and livelihood of the affected people to learn from experience and incorporate them into future projects.

Better Quality EIAs wanted

An independent review and assessment of EIA reports for a number of hydropower projects in Bhutan found that the reports are generic in nature with no standard methodologies or credible criteria used for determining the impacts of the projects objectively.

The assessments lacked baseline data to comprehend the assessment of impacts, overemphasized on construction impacts with lack of assessment of impacts of ancillary infrastructures, adopted generic approaches to mitigation measures with no site-specificity and lacked a comprehensive compliance framework.

More importantly, the report says, EIA reports contain only qualitative description of the potential impacts associated with construction. There are no detailed evaluations undertaken.

Giving examples, the report says that in Mangdechu, issues such as dust, waste, muck management and blasting were not comprehensively detailed in the EIA report.

Likewise, in Punatsangchu I and II EIA reports, muck management was not corroborated with the scope of envisaged excavations, which was one of the key factors responsible for cost escalation during construction.

The recommendation is that the scope of EIA has to be expanded and utilization of local expertise should be encouraged.

It says that EIA/EMP reports should contain project specific baseline information so that, identification and assessment of impacts are realistic enough leading to proposal of practical mitigation measures.

It calls for the reports to address the issue of muck management in greater detail. “Prior to the approval of the project, the approving authority should be convinced that the dumping sites identified are adequate to contain the muck that would be generated. Further, the reports should also contain rehabilitation and monitoring plans for the dump sites,” says the report.

“Approving authorities must reject the reports which do not meet the requirement under the various related laws,” adds the report.

Harmonizing laws and policies

Currently there are numerous Acts, Policies and regulations governing the management of natural resources of the country. There are overlaps, duplications and conflicts impeding development activities including hydropower, according to the report.

Most of the hydropower development activities require environmental clearances from the NECS but one of the conditions for environmental clearance is the sectoral clearances governed by respective Acts.

It says that delays ensue due to lack of authority of the NECS to ensure that the sectoral clearances are issued within a reasonable time limit.

“Under such circumstances, it not only imposes practical challenges for hydropower sector in obtaining required clearances but also adds to administrative burden leading to delays in the implementation of projects,” says the report.

The recommendation is on the need for harmonization of these legislations understanding that there should be one national goal for environmental conservation.

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