Delayed Punatsangchu-I Hydro Project: A deliberate thaw?

The Punatsangchu-I hydroelectric project, a collaborative effort between Bhutan and India, stands at a critical juncture after years of technical and geopolitical deliberations.

Originally envisioned to harness 1,200 MW of power from the Punatsangchu River, the project has been marred by geological challenges, specifically concerning the stability of the right bank area.

Recent developments indicate a thaw in the longstanding deadlock between Bhutanese and Indian authorities regarding the project’s feasibility. The crucial Technical Coordination Committee (TCC) meeting held in Delhi has seen both sides finally converging on the need for comprehensive mitigation measures to address deep-seated fractures and shear zones identified in rock samples.

This agreement marks a significant shift from past disagreements, where Bhutan advocated for a safer barrage alternative due to persistent safety concerns over the dam site.

The journey to this consensus has been fraught with setbacks and financial implications. With approximately Nu 83 billion already invested in the project by last year, including substantial expenditures on mitigation measures that ultimately proved inadequate, stakeholders have faced mounting pressure to ensure the project’s viability.

The recurring slides and geological instabilities have underscored the need for meticulous planning and robust engineering solutions.

The Bhutanese insistence on thorough mitigation measures before proceeding with the dam reflects a prudent approach to long-term safety, given the region’s seismic activity and geological complexities.

This shift from initial reluctance by Indian authorities to acknowledging the seriousness of Bhutan’s concerns demonstrates a constructive evolution in bilateral cooperation, emphasizing shared responsibility and technical scrutiny.

The forthcoming decision by the PHPA Authority, chaired by Lyonpo Gem Tshering, will be pivotal. The authority’s commitment to decide on detailed mitigation measures for the right bank area, including the potential use of concrete and other engineering solutions, underscores a commitment to safety and sustainability in the project’s execution.

However, challenges remain. The project’s history of conflicting expert opinions, as highlighted by the divergence between assessments from WAPCOS/CWC and NHPC, raises questions about technical integrity and independent oversight. The role of third-party reviews, such as that conducted by Stucky, adds another layer of complexity to the decision-making process, necessitating transparency and accountability from all parties involved.

As the PHPA Authority prepares to convene after Bhutan’s National Assembly session, scheduled to conclude in early July 2024, stakeholders must prioritize a thorough evaluation of all technical proposals and ensure alignment with the highest standards of engineering and environmental stewardship.

The decision to proceed with the dam, contingent upon agreed-upon mitigation measures, must not only satisfy regulatory requirements but also instill confidence in local communities and international stakeholders.

Ultimately, the Punatsangchu-I hydro project represents more than just a bilateral energy initiative—it embodies the delicate balance between development aspirations, environmental sustainability, and geopolitical cooperation. The lessons learned from its protracted history underscore the imperative for robust risk assessment and adaptive management in large-scale infrastructure projects in ecologically sensitive regions.

While challenges persist, the potential benefits of the Punatsangchu-I hydro project remain substantial. It is incumbent upon all stakeholders to navigate the remaining hurdles with diligence and foresight, setting a precedent for responsible infrastructure development in the Himalayan region.

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