INDIA Bhutan’s “white gold” wets India’s interest

The rivers that flow through the tiny Himalayan kingdom promise great wealth. Large-scale power plants could light up the country and become a source of foreign exchange with neighbouring India. By 2020, more than half of GDP will come from hydro. Experts warn though of possible environmental risks.Thimphu (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Bhutan’s rivers could be a source of enormous wealth for the kingdom if harnessed by powerful hydroelectric power plants to provide energy (also) to neighbouring India. In co-operation with and funded by New Delhi, the kingdom is now aiming for a capacity of 10,000 megawatts by 2020 with ten new plants. Experts urge “caution” though because of the impact such large-scale projects can have on the environment.

Home to monks and Himalayan nomads, the Kingdom of Bhutan has set its sights on becoming an unlikely energy powerhouse thanks to its abundant winding rivers.

Hydropower plants already harness the country’s water to light up nearly every Bhutanese home, generating power sent to remote villages by cables strung through rugged mountain terrain.

This represents a significant shift for the long-isolated nation, where less than a quarter of households had electricity in 1999, the year when it became the last country to introduce TV.

However, the kingdom has set its goal much higher with renewable hydropower expected to provide more than half of its GDP by 2020.

“It is the white gold for Bhutan today,” said Chhewang Rinzin, managing director of state-owned Druk Green Power Corporation, which runs the country’s hydropower sector.

Bhutan’s first megaproject, opened in the south-western Chukha district in the 1980s, is now one of four major plants which between them have almost 1,500 megawatts of capacity or 5 per cent of Bhutan’s hydropower potential.

However, sceptics warn that the small nation might be biting more than it can chew and could end up “drowning in hydropower”. At the same time, the environmental impact could be huge in exchange for uncertain revenues.

Samir Mehta, South Asia programme director at US-based watchdog International Rivers, warned that hydropower plants faced serious threats from climate change, as well as Bhutan’s susceptibility to floods from lakes formed high in the mountains by melting glaciers.

Bhutan is a small landlocked kingdom of just over 700,000 people, sandwiched between two giants, India and China.

Until 2006, it was ruled by a Buddhist theocratic regime. In 1979, then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck had banned religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism.

In 2008, when 28-year-old Jigme Khesar came to the throne, he also brought to the country new hopes for greater openness. The country’s new constitution recognised freedom of religion for all Bhutanese.

However, people are still required to report to the authorities their religion and many bans and restrictions were kept in place penalising, for example, Christians who make up 0.5 per cent of the population.

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