The Human and Social costs of Mega Hydropower Construction in Samcholing

Contributed By Pema Thinley

A Brief Background

A significant move in the Bhutanese economy was the major investment and development of the Chukha hydro power plant in the 6th Five Year Plan (FYP) with support from the government of India. In the latter period of the same FYP, Bashochu Hydro power was developed with the funding support from the Austrian government.

The Chukha, Kurichu and Tala Hydroelectric Projects (1416MW) have been developed. These projects were constructed with the funding pattern of 40% (Nu19.7 bn) loan and 60%( Nu 29.5611 bn) grants from the Government of India. The government of India has further agreed to build 10,000 MW of hydro power projects in Bhutan for export of excess power to India by 2020. This is based on the agreement signed between the two countries in the hydro power sector in 2009. Bhutan has an estimated hydropower potential of around 30,000MW. Of this 23,760MW is found technically feasible which translates into a mean yearly power production potential of around 100,000GWh. Currently, around 5% of this enormous capacity has been tapped. The power sector’s share of GDP also rose, and continues to rise to become the single largest contributor to the national revenue.

Thus, the Punatshangchu I, II and Mangdechu hydro electric projects, with the total installation capacity of 2,910MW are being constructed on the Punatshangchhu river in Wangdiphodrang and the Mangdechhu river in Trongsa. Unlike the previous plants, the ratios of the funding pattern of these projects are different. It is 60% loan and 40% grant for the Punatshangchu I. It is 70% loan and 30% grant for the Punatshangchu II and the Mangdechu projects.


A Case of Samcholing

Samcholing under Dragteng gewog in Trongsa is one of the most affected villages due to the construction of the Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project. Samcholing has over 218 households and 70% of them were interviewed. It was discovered that the construction activities of hydro power projects have immeasurable human and social costs.

The undertaking of any developmental project presupposes the possibility of social and environmental impacts on the locality where such projects are located. The project will of course have long term economic returns for the nation but sometimes, they are at a huge price. The case of Samcholing under Dragteng gewog is a typical example. The south-central national highway pierces and zigzags through the heart of the Samcholing village. The ongoing construction of the Surge Shaft is located at Tangchan, Samcholing. Few Adicts are also located in the community. The construction of the main power house is located at the lateral part of Yourmung, Langthel, adjacent to lower Samcholing. Excavation work and other activities are underway in the locality.

Amongst other issues, dust and pollution top the list and most people reported that it is a major problem that constantly affects the health and livelihood of the people.

Roads are damaged by trucks carrying heavy loads. Drainage systems are spoiled while Irrigation canals located along the road are hampered. Cultivation of major crops and vegetables are compromised due to an erratic supply of water. Drinking water has become scarcer than before, as it is drained to meet the needs of thousands of project staff and workers.

The heavy trucks not only pollute the air, but the community as a whole because of the disturbing noise and commotion they create. Dust particles are visible during the day time and is felt and experienced at night. It even dirties the dried laundry. The dust contaminates stored drinking water in the bucket and also food. Altars and offerings set with statues are also affected by the dust.

Though most paddy fields are left fallow due to incessant ravages of the wild boar another reason is the erratic supply of water for the field. Paddy cultivated with huge costs and hardships are lost to pollution and damages from construction activities.

Most households do not have freehold wetland to cultivate paddy. Sharecropping has been and is one of the only options for many of the households to make their ends meet. Most of the households on an average buy between 400-500kgs of imported rice to supplement their locally produced stock in a year. Most people claim that working for wages is much easier than working in the field on the basis of sharecropping. The focus of becoming self reliant, particularly in regards to food self sufficiency will continue to remain a mere policy for these farmers.

The assumption that such a big project will boost the local community’s economy is not true.

The most popular and common tree fodder in Samcholing is Ficus roxburghii, locally known as Bhakhu shing. In many parts of Bhutan, tree fodders are an important resource for feeding cattle. Bhakhu trees are a very important source of winter-feed for cattle in Samcholing, as is the case in many parts of Bhutan. However, Bhakhu trees are covered by thick dust from the frequent movements of trucks carrying mucks, equipments and other activities. Even the roof of the houses, vegetables, and grasses are found to be yellowish due to the dust. This is though the social and environmental division of the MHPA claims to oversee the sprinkling of water on the road to prevent dust.

The people reported that sprinkling of water on the road was not being carried out properly by the project authority, except on certain occasions when there are visits by senior government officials. People state that their health hazards have increased by almost two fold over the construction period. Common cold and other respiratory diseases are perceived to have gone up with the launch of the project as compared to preceding years.

The serenity of community life, especially in lower Samcholing has been affected due to the project workers. Few months ago, a young man in his early 20s was killed by his wife after a drunken fight between them on the wife’s alleged relationship with project workers. Relatives and neighbors claim to that the fight was provoked by project workers who offered the alcohol. There may be other cases of local social discord due to the large number of workers there.

The tremor from the moving trucks and excavation works shake the houses that fall near the road and excavation sites. These house owners are constantly under stress and have to keep on worrying. They feel insecure and have to live under complete uncertainty.

Some households lost land to the project. They were given an option to choose between the cash compensation and land replacements. Most households did not opt for the land replacements. They chose cash compensation against land replacement because most of them are illiterate and they could not foresee the future prospects or value of land. Many people think that the cash compensation is unsatisfactory and not enough compensation for the loss of their land to the project.

The project seems to have bare minimum socio-economic benefits, if any, at least in the construction period. It is observed that hydroelectric power constructions do not necessarily improve the socio-economic conditions of the local people as perceived in the socio-economic and environmental impact study.

The local people cannot sell vegetables and dairy products to the project. Truck loads of vegetables and other requirements are imported from India for consumption by the project workers. There are groceries established specifically to cater to the project workers. Such a setting deters the local agrarian economy.

Very few people feel that the project has been a blessing for their livelihood. For those to whom the projects have been beneficial, it is in terms of limited employment on temporary and daily wage basis. They have also benefited from being able to sell some farms products they could salvage from the dust and pollution. Employment opportunities, if any, was given to those households whose land had to be acquired by the project.

However, the entire village is thankful to the MHPA for an uninterrupted and stable supply of electricity. Enduchholing substation was built primarily to supply electricity without any fluctuation required for the Mangdechhu project.

The pursuit of economic benefits from hydropower appears to come at the huge social, environment, land and the cultural heritage costs. The displacement of people is at a bare minimum as compared to other countries. Nevertheless, in the future, such projects may displace hundreds of people who may have to relocate and rebuild villages if more attention to strategic planning for social and environmental impacts with strict laws is not put into place.

There must be new and strict regulations for the hydroelectric project construction authority to undertake social and environmental impact studies and also to offer prospect for public comments and oversight. Compensation package for the residents and community needs to be improved by considering the wholesome nature of the project’s externalities. The supply of vegetables and other requirements for the project could be negotiated from the community through the means of brokers and cooperatives so as to benefit the local economy. New regulations, conducive systems and ideas need to be brought in, so that the locals can have a voice as against their helplessness today.

Otherwise, the development of hydroelectric projects may become unruly, unrestrained, and may have far reaching consequences. The completion of a project may show a spike in revenue generation, however, if care is not given, communities might actually become poorer.  By and large, hydro projects are much cleaner sources of power unlike coal-fired power and others. Coal-fired plants pollute the air and emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Nevertheless, hydroelectric projects displace people and thus have social and environmental impacts. There are no ideal options for Bhutan than to keep building hydroelectric projects, looking at its comparative advantage, at least for now, even as the social and environmental impacts of the projects are increasingly questioned.


Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations.

The Author is a Researcher



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