Three avenues, one goal

The focus is on development of hydropower, industries and food production: how sustainably can the targets be achieved?

Published: Saturday 30 September 2000

Three avenues, one goal

Food for thought: farmers livi (Credit: Phal Girota / Picture Library<)In 1990, senior government officials gathered at Paro to draft broad parameters for the country's development agenda. The conclusion was the "Paro Resolution on Environment and Sustainable Development", a statement that redefined sustainability in the Bhutanese context. It read as, "The capacity and the political will to effectively address today's development and environmental problems and tomorrow's challenges without compromising Bhutan's unique cultural integrity and historical heritage or the quality of life of future generations of Bhutanese citizens." But given that the country had very little experience to draw from, formulating proactive measures was not an easy task.

nec set about the task to identify the economic avenues that would enable Bhutan to pursue "the middle path" to sustainable development. In 1993, it set up the nes task force to investigate the avenues and judge their environmental implications. The findings were finally released in 1998. To achieve sustainable development, nes focuses on hydropower, food production and industry. "The nes examines each avenue in detail and analyses the effects of development on the culture, tradition and religion," says Kunzang Dorji, deputy director (information, communication and outreach division) nec.

The nes is the first step towards sustainable development. Now, the challenge lies in formulating a National Environment Action Plan to guide its implementation.

Water: Bhutan's "white gold"
For a country that did not have electricity till 1964, when the first diesel generators were installed, fuelwood along with kerosene is a major source of energy especially for domestic purposes. Now hydroelectricity is assuming the leading role and, given the severe limitations posed by the mountainous nature of the country's topography, it is considered the most promising of the three avenues of development.

It was in 1967 that Bhutan started setting up mini-hydel projects with India's assistance. By 1996, there were 21 such projects scattered all over the country. The first major hydel project, the 336-mw Chukha Hydropower Project, came onstream only in 1986. This was followed by two medium-sized projects -- the Kurichhu (45 mw) and Bashochuu (60.8 mw) -- and a major project, the Tala (1,020 mw), which are still under construction. The government has also planned three large projects, the Sankosh (4,060 mw), Wangchhu (900) and Bunakha (180 mw), but they are in the preliminary stage.

Much of the development of Bhutan's hydropower is being done with India's assistance. The Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited-built Chukha project, for instance, was commissioned in 1986 as part of an understanding between the Indian and Bhutanese governments. Most of the power generated is sold to India.

As of 1996, hydropower accounted for one-third of the annual foreign revenue earned by the country, though only 2 per cent of the total 20,000 megawatt potential had been tapped.

"With a 20,000 megawatt (mw) capacity, hydropower is Bhutan's white gold," says Dasho Nado Rinchen, deputy minister, nec . "We know that this area is a great revenue-generating area and also a relatively eco-friendly source of energy," he adds. Emphasis on tapping the water potential, therefore, is a priority area.

Given the fragile nature of the terrain, run-of-the-river projects are considered ideal. "The narrow gorges are ideal for this kind of power generation," says Tshering Tashi. "Unlike other countries that have invested heavily in large dams, there are no plans for multi-purpose dams in Bhutan. Hence, Bhutan's plan to harness water is in keeping with environmental concerns. Since most of the projects are run-of-the-river projects, very little environmental problems or conflicts with people are expected," avers Rinchen.

Unfortunately, though the country generates more than 350 mw of electricity annually, with the exception of major towns, most of the country is yet to be electrified. The cause of cause of concern is fuelwood consumption. Fuelwood still accounts for 75 per cent of the domestic energy needs, making the country one of the highest per capita consumers of fuelwood in the world -- 1.2 tonnes per year. The first casualty from the very high demand for fuelwood for domestic purposes is the country's forests, which range from the tropical hardwoods in the south to the blue pine and birch at altitudes up to 4,000 metres. But given the prohibitive costs involved in extending the grid lines across the rugged terrain to inaccessible areas, the government sees micro-mini hydel projects, initiated in the 1980s, as the logical alternative for the overwhelming rural majority.

Food sufficiency: an uphill task
"In the four decades of planned development, food self-sufficiency has greatly improved. By the end of the 8th five year plan, we hope to achieve 70 per cent sufficiency -- 5 per cent up from the current level," says Pelzang Wangchuk, national project manager, land use and statistics section, policy and planning division, moa . But there are many constraints in achieving food self-sufficiency.

More than 85 per cent of the people are dependent on agriculture and other related activities, yet as of 1995 they accounted for only 38 per cent of the gross domestic product. Worse, cultivated areas account for a mere 7.8 per cent of the geographical area. Most of the land holdings are small and often in isolated patches. With transport facilities still in the nascent stage, most of the farmers integrate their activities to be self-sufficient. For centuries, this has been the way of life. Traditional land use classification include sok-shing that is use of leaf-litter, fodder and dry litter from public wood lots, and tsamdro , grazing of pasture land on a rotational basis in the mountainous region of north Bhutan.

But with modernisation has come about a change in consumption pattern. "Consumption has changed to a large extent, particularly in eastern Bhutan. Rice has replaced maize as the main diet. Land suitable for crops which require less water is used to cultivate water-intensive crops," says Wangchuk. At the same time, the population is ticking at the rate of 3.1 per cent per annum. The emergence of non-farming communities also cannot be overlooked. Nor can the fact that the country has very little arable land to begin with. Given the circumstances, does increasing food sufficiency entail bring forest land under the plough?

Keeping all these constraints in mind, says Wangchuk, there are two aspects of food self-sufficiency that need to be considered. Firstly, development and distribution of high-yielding varieties ( hyv ) of crops. "Many hyv crops such as paddy, maize and potatoes are already reaping benefits for farmers across the country. You have to follow it up with appropriate modern technology so that the yield is higher from the same plot of land," he says. Secondly, reclaim waste/dry land and regenerate them. The yield from such land will improve in subsequent years.

Rinchen is also of the same view: "Instead of looking for new land, what should be encouraged is intensive farming, increasing use of manure, introduction of hyv and pest management practices." The moa has an extensive network of people working at the block and village levels. Comprising agricultural experts, forestry experts and so on, the extension officers, provide assistance and education to the local people. "We know we cannot be wholly self-sufficient in food grains, but we can strive to increase self-sufficiency," says the minister.

hyvs is a package, which encompases the use of more water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides -- in other words, the Green Revolution which in course of time has turned sour in India. Does increase in food entail the same for Bhutan? There is no clear answer. But says Chencho Norbu, head, Soil and Plant Analytical Laboratory, Semtokha, "As of now, the agricultural practices followed across the country are still traditional. The main input has always been farmyard manure and its use has continued. Nowhere has it been replaced by chemical fertilisers, except perhaps apple orchards."

Use of fertilisers also depends on whether villages are connected by roads. "Farmers living in accessible areas use more fertilisers," says Norbu, but they, too, have realised the difference in the taste of the crops grown using chemical fertilisers." He adds that, in some areas, fertilisers are used in combination with farmyard manure, but there is no exclusive dependence on fertilisers. "Bhutan is one of the lowest consumers of chemical fertilisers in the world," he says.

As far as the regulations concerning pesticide consumption is concerned, the country's National Assembly has recently endorsed the Pesticides Act of Bhutan, 2000. This lays down a comprehensive set of specifications on the manufacture, import, sale, licensing, use, monitoring and seizure of pesticides in the country. The Act aims to ensure integrated pest management, limited use of pesticides, keep control on the types and quality of pesticides and provide for their effective use. A board comprising researchers and professionals from the renewable natural resources sector will be established to oversee the implementation.

Industries: limited development
Expanding the industrial base is recognised as the third avenue of economic development. "But it will be limited and gradual because we want to avoid anything that may destroy the ecology in the long run," says Rinchen. Moreover, the economic viability of any industrial project is an important consideration.

According to Rinchen, the government is encouraging industrial growth where: raw materials can be sourced from the country itself; there is a demand for the product both in the domestic market and neighbouring countries such as India and Bangladesh; and it is not highly-polluting. In this context, before establishing the industry, it is important to carry out an environmental impact assessment ( eia ).

Currently, industrial development is based on four main resources -- hydropower, wood, agriculture and minerals. The thrust is expectedly on hydropower. There is a potential in agro-based industries but "we has not done much to promote the industry", says Rinchen. In recent years, the growth in industrial sector has come from mineral-based activities. However, says Rinchen, "Mining should be conducted only for high-value minerals. The nec is not in favour of mining. Reclamation of mined areas is mandatory but miners say that the lease period given by the government is too less to undertake such an activity. The nec has suggested that the lease period be extended and a certain portion of the period be earmarked only for reclamation."

Because of the proximity to raw materials and a ready market (in India), the country's major industries are located in the south or southwest. These industries include particle board, calcium carbide, ferro-silicon and cement. Says Rinchen, "Some of these industries have been found to be highly polluting." Hence, for the first time in the country, the nec recently carried out an extensive eia of all the industries in the country, which is yet to be made public. Depending on the nature of the problem, the industrial units will be tackled, says Rinchen, adding: "We are ready to help the industries concerned to take necessary action."

Challenges ahead
So far, so good. But a host of problems are expected in the near future, especially while making inroads in the development of the three economic avenues. While hydropower expansion entails maintaining the country's forest cover, food sufficiency and industrialisation may mean eating up a part of the forests. However, says Rinchen, "The change that the government wants to bring about is not as drastic as it may sound and I am confident these issues will be resolved."

"I suggest that some amount of the revenue generated be earmarked for development of catchment areas. All kinds of activities -- such as logging, grazing and encroachment -- should be banned in these areas," says Tshering Tashi. "There should also be specific watershed management plans for all the rivers. Currently, there is one for Wang river watershed, which encompasses four districts of Paro, Thimpu, Haa and Chukha, but in the future we should have separate ones," he says.

Bhutan is also yet to evolve a land use plan, says Chencho Norbu. "At present, some areas may be arable but are under forests or vice versa. So we need to look into these issues. Once this is done, we will get an answer to all the conflicts," he says. Besides, everything should be backed by data and it is the duty of the policymakers to take care of these issues, he adds.

Lam Dorjee of rspn feels the only way for controlling the conflict is to stick to the policy of maintaining 60 per cent forest cover. "The returns from hydropower should also be pumped to regenerating land. There has to be a limit on bringing more land under cultivation also. The idea should be to enhance farming technologies," he says. "At the same time, it is essential to maintain the forests on a sustainable basis -- by harvesting on a rotational basis, for instance," says Sangay Thinley, secretary, moa .

To aid in its "middle path" development, the government has also set up the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation ( btf ). Established in March 1991 as an innovative financing mechanism, btf is aimed at helping Bhutan conserve its environment "despite the pressure of modernisation". The primary donor to btf is the Global Environment Facility. Other donors include Switzerland, Denmark, wwf and the Netherlands.

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