Grassroots & Governance -- By Teresa S. Abesamis

Water power in Shangri-La

Posted on January 26, 2011

The Bhutanese monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who coined the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as his overriding goal in the 1990s, did the unprecedented, when in 2006, at the age of 51, he abdicated to his young son Jigme Kesar Wangchuck, then not yet 30. His Oxford-educated son, the new king then proceeded to move methodically toward a constitutional democracy, so that today, executive functions are in the hands of an elected Parliament. In the last few years, landlocked Bhutan, often referred to as the last Shangri-La, has discovered and proceeded to develop a sustainable source of revenues for meeting its happiness goals for its people: hydropower.

Bhutan is a small country of less than 700,000 people. Its primarily Buddhist-oriented culture, derived from its Tibetan-linked origins, might account for its reverence for the environment, so that almost 80% of the land is under vegetative cover. This enables its rivers to constantly flow and provide the energy for the hydropower that it began to export to its friendly neighbor, India, in the late ’90s. Today, although it is in its early stages of development, the export revenues from hydropower to India accounts for almost half of total national income.

The government’s goal is sustainable development and a self-reliant economy. There has been much foreign development assistance which has been used to fund development planning. There are studies on hydropower and water resources to ensure sustainability of these resources. The studies fully recognize that potential conflicts on priority uses for water resources must be recognized and prevented and policies formulated and enforced to ensure first of all, that water is used first to protect and nurture biological life in Bhutan, and only after that has been satisfied, for hydropower.

Because of Bhutan’s geography, and dispersed population, land transportation is largely undeveloped, and so the installation of electricity in rural areas is taking time to accomplish. However, there is a target of "electricity for all in 2020." But there is a rural electrification plan. Although hydropower is low cost and abundant, alternative fuels are also being considered in the long-term plans, if the transport and grid construction costs are factored in.

Hydropower will be the backbone of Bhutan’s economy for years to come, so long as its water resources are managed well. The increasingly rapid industrial growth of India, its hydropower export customer, has caused its economy to grow by leaps and bounds, thus enabling Bhutan to invest in infrastructure and education.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised last year to run into five Bhutanese business school graduate students at the AIM. While in Nepal last year, I was told by the head of the Broadcast Media Authority of Bhutan that the young king was sending many students abroad for further studies, to prepare Bhutan for managed modernization and future economic growth.

On a flight back from Nepal to Bangkok, I shared a seat with a Laotian, who revealed to me that his country was also building a hydroelectric plant to sell power to Thailand. This, he said, would inject some vibrancy to the slow growing economy of his country.

Water flow fuels the hydropower plants. But water is also fuel for life. Bodies of water are also used for transport, and in too many cases in our country, for industrial and human waste disposal.

Today, with climate change, and the destruction of forest cover in our country, uncontrolled, massive flows of water have become destructive, causing floods, destruction of properties, and loss of lives. At the same time, future water shortages are imperiling the future of places like Cebu, where salt water intrusion is entering water pipes for household use. There seems to be complacency in view of the anticipated advances in desalination technology, and mass distribution of bottled water. But with denuded mountains and concreted lowlands in the cities, and a narrow, elongated geographic terrain that does not facilitate water resources capture, there is reason to worry.

Perhaps it is time for the Philippines to find ways to interface planning for water resources development and use over the long term, recognizing that water resources are the most critical in the world’s future : for nurturing human, plant and animal life, for energy generation, for transport, and other potential uses.

Water is too precious a resource to be left to chance and dire emergencies. We should not wait for horrendous disasters to strike before we think out policies and appropriate actions on how we can ensure adequate and appropriate water resources for these multipurpose uses. There seems to have been too little of this kind of thinking. Hopefully, perhaps too little, but not too late. Laguna Lake is a good place to start.

Today, water from La Niña is overabundant, in some places uncontrolled so that it leads to loss of homes, livelihood, schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure. Water resources planning must also be interfaced with those for forest resources, because our forests are the natural protectors and managers of our water resources.