Unfortunately for the Himalayan Kingdom, the transition from traditional temples to ‘modern’ ones is not smooth. Since July this year, the right side of a mega project, the Punatsangchhu-I Hydroelectric Project (PHP-I), is sinking and huge rocks were found moving down towards the spot under excavation of the base of the dam ~ CLAUDE ARPI
In July 1954, in an oft-quoted speech, Jawaharlal Nehru likened large dams to ‘modern temples’. Bhutan, till recently famous for its high-perched gompas (monasteries) and dzongs (forts), has started building ‘modern temples’ to get richer. Unfortunately for the Himalayan Kingdom, the transition from traditional temples to ‘modern’ ones is not smooth.
Since July this year, the right side of a mega project, the Punatsangchhu-I Hydroelectric Project (PHP-I), is sinking and huge rocks were found moving down towards the spot under excavation of the base of the dam. According to The Economic Times: “It is not only a matter of worry for the Himalayan country, but a concern for India too. India&’s future power profile is highly dependent on power from Bhutan.”
The PHPA-I is the first stage of an initiative taken by Bhutan and India in May 2008 to generate 10,000 MW of hydro electricity by 2020. Without going into the question of whether the project will bring more Happiness to Bhutan, for the moment, it brings more headaches, especially as another hydropower plant under construction also faces serious glitches. With a capacity of 1,200 MW, Punatsangchhu-I is the largest hydropower project under construction in Bhutan today. This joint project of the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) and the Government of India is a run-of-the-river scheme, located on the left bank of the Punatsang chhu (river) in Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag in Western Bhutan. The project will utilize a 357 meter gravity fall on a stretch of 11 km of the river course. On 18 July, 2007, an agreement was signed between India and Bhutan for implementing the project, at a cost of Rs. 3,515 crore for an installed capacity of 1,095 MW (now revised to 1,200 MW). The project is to be funded by India ~ 40 per cent grant and 60 per cent loan (with a 0% interest p.a. repayable in 12 equated annual installments starting after the completion of the project).
The project&’s Zero-Date (date of start) is November 11, 2008. The concrete dam is 136 m high and 239 m long, at the top. While WAPCOS Ltd., a Government of India undertaking is the engineering design consultant, other organizations such as the Central Electricity Authority, the Central Water Commission, the Central Water & Power Research Station, the Central Soil & Materials Research Station, the Geological Survey of India and the Survey of India are also involved. The Main Civil Works (MCW) has been taken up by Larsen & Toubro while the Generating Plant & Equipment is the responsibility of BHEL.
The project was originally scheduled to be completed in eight years (November 2016). The details show that whatever problems the project faces are clearly first and foremost India&’s problems. According to Kuensel, the Bhutanese publication, the PHPA I needs another Rs 350 crore ‘to stabilise the hill’ which is ‘sinking’ on the right bank of the project&’s dam site. On 20 September, the PHP Authority submitted a status report to the Bhutanese government in which the cost escalation is mentioned. There has been a threefold increase from the initial cost.
Experts from the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) recommended that the work should be completed by the end of the next monsoon, which practically means that the commissioning of the project will be delayed by a year. The experts had suggested ‘permanent strengthening measures’. Why did they not think about this before? Why were all the necessary tests and investigations not carried out earlier? It is a recurring question for this type of project.
It was only after a first visit of ‘experts’ to the site (from July 28 to August), that some holes were drilled on the slide area and the dam site. Teams from the CWC and GSI are due to visit the site again between October 18 and 22. Four holes drilled outside the landslide, upstream of the dam site, indicated a shear or unstable zone underneath, while the two holes, each in the dam area, did not show any such sign, even at the deepest level of the dam.
Between September 1 and 15, the Central Water and Power Research Station from Pune conducted electric resistivity tomography and seismic refraction. The outcome of the geo-physical studies, along five stretches of the hill from top to bottom of the slide would be available on September 30 and will determine the type of underground earth structures required. Once again, this should have been done years ago.
On 9 September, a Technical Coordination Committee (TCC) discussed the outcome of the explorations and the need for further exploration or studies in the slide area and a proper action plan for restoring normalcy. According to the outcome of the investigations, changes will be proposed to ‘permanently strengthen the area’; the ‘experts’ are however confident to find a “lasting solution for treatment of the hill mass and to ensure 100 per cent stability of the dam for its entire life.”
Only the future will tell if it is true; history tells us that nothing is ‘permanent’ in the Himalayas; we have seen it recently in Uttarakhand. The other project, which also faces ‘unexpected’ difficulties, is the Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project (MHP). In April 2010, the approved cost of the MHP was Rs. 3,382 crore, to be funded by India.
Three years later, the tentative project cost has already reached Rs. 3,800 crore. But there is worse: the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), the Indian consultant, believes that the project should be shifted “to avoid shear zones or loose rocks encountered during the excavation”.
According to an article in Kuensel, NHPC proposed that the locations should be moved some 40 meters away. The new proposal would delay the project by more than five months with an additional cost of at least Rs 5 crore.
Kuensel quotes the project managing director, AK Mishra, who believes that the layout of the pressure shaft, tailrace tunnel, ventilation tunnel and a few other tunnels had to be moved from their present locations and the entire layout of the project would have to be re-inclined. He told Kuensel: “A lot of changes would have to be incorporated and it would mean additional cost and delay in the completion of the project.”
Mr Mishra suggests: “We’d rather treat the shear zone, remove loose rocks, pump cement slurries into the vacuum and stitch the area.”
However, the paper&’s investigations have found that the re-location of the powerhouse and the transformer cavern may not solve all the problems, just because the shear zone had stretched over a vast area.
But these changes will be at what cost? The overall cost of the project could reach around Rs 4,700 crore at the time of completion, if “the project does not encounter major geological glitches, or increase in the scope of work.”
But in the months to come the project could encounter environmental issues. In a report compiled in 2009, the audit of Uttarakhand, compiled by the Controller-General of Accounts pointed out: “The State&’s policy on hydropower projects is silent on the vital issue of maintaining downstream flow in the diversion reach”.
The problem with these so-called environment-friendly projects is that the river dies between the point it is diverted into pipelines and the point the water rejoins the river; 11 km of deviation in the case of the PHP-I!
Has this been taken into considerations or will it only be looked into ‘after’?
It seems that Bhutan is trading Happiness for an uncertain ‘developed’ future.
The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet.