The tiny kingdom of Bhutan, wedged high in the Himalayas between China and India, has become famous for its pursuit of gross national happiness (GNH) – conserving nature and cultural values over and above economic growth. The country has declared it will be the world’s first 100% organic nation and carbon neutral for all time to come. Yet, less than 20km downstream from the sacred Buddhist fortress at Punakha, Bhutan’s winter capital, the roadsides are littered with shantytown settlements housing the thousands of migrants who’ve come to work at the site of one of Bhutan’s mega dams, Puna I.
Bhutan plans to exploit the vast potential of its high peaks and running rivers promise to transform it from an isolated backwater into one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It aims to install 10,000 MWof hydropower by 2020, 80% of which will be sold to India. So far it has exploited only 5% of its potential.
However, trouble seems to be on the horizon with most of the jobs created by hydropower being in construction – unattractive to young Bhutanese, products of the country’s good education system, and youth unemployment rates remain high. A host of environmental problems have also emerged.
Climate change adds another layer of complexity. Bhutan has lost 20% of its glaciers in the last 20 years and river flow is predicted to fall significantly over coming decades, leaving dams inoperable.
While the government rushes forward with plans to ease the increasing economic malaise and satisfy the growing consumer class, many in the region fear the lack of systematic planning.