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The Value of Bhutan’s Rivers

Childhood Stories This story is one I remember vividly from my childhood. I must have been about eight or nine years old then. One winter afternoon, I picked up some rocks from the side of the road and carried them in my hemchu (large pouch in Bhutanese traditional dress) as I walked across the Wangdue Bridge....

The Marang stream, a tributary of the Drangme Chhu. This important spawning tributary for the endangered Golden Mahaseer and other fish runs right by the Marang Jungle Camp (photo: Bhutan Foundation).

Childhood Stories

This story is one I remember vividly from my childhood. I must have been about eight or nine years old then. One winter afternoon, I picked up some rocks from the side of the road and carried them in my hemchu (large pouch in Bhutanese traditional dress) as I walked across the Wangdue Bridge. From the bridge, I dropped them one by one into the river below, amused as they went “plonk” into the depths of the Punatsangchhu (chhu is the word for river in the Bhutanese language Dzongkha).

Old photograph of Wangdue Bridge taken circa 1907 by John C. White for the first National Geographic article on Bhutan, published in 1914.

“Well, if you’re going to throw that many rocks into the river, don’t blame me when they make you pull them all out, one by one, with a string tied to your testicles!” my father quipped. Armed only with the wisdom of a small boy, I was puzzled by these words and grimaced at the thought of the pain. I looked up at my father. “After you die…,” he shrugged his shoulders. Then he went on to explain that when we die we must pay for our misdeeds, which apparently also applies to picking up dry rocks and throwing them into the river. I was disturbing the natural balance with my rock-throwing. People also believed that a Tshomem, or mermaid, lived there. She had a human lover who was mute and lived in a shack under the column in the middle of the bridge. I remember the old man who lived there for many years. Try as we may, we could never extract out of him any stories about the river mermaid and his intimate life with her. He couldn’t speak and only communicated in hand gestures.

Wangdue Bridge in summer 2014. The ramparts of the Wangdue Dzong, destroyed by a fire, can be seen on the top right corner. It is presently being restored to its former glory.

Another adage that we were often told was that one should not stand on a bridge looking at the river below for too long. Even the mere casting of one’s shadow on the water would be enough to draw out a giant octopus from the dark depths to suck the innocent bridge-crossers into the churning water. Bhutanese kids would usually hurry across to the other side to avoid the risks below. Of course, now we know that there are no marine species such as octopuses and other cephalopods in our rivers.

Many Bhutanese children growing up in remote mountain villages are sent to boarding schools in more accessible areas. I, too, was sent to study and live at a boarding school. During the weekends, my friends and I would often run away from our hostel to swim in the river or go into the nearby forest to pick wild fruits and berries. My mother was particularly concerned that I would be carried away by the river that ran by our school.

Don’t go river; river carry you. Don’t go forest; snake bite you,” my mother would make my younger brother write in his second grader’s English to me. And she was right to be worried. One day a boy from our school went swimming with a group of friends and drowned. His body was never found. Even to this day, the Mo Chhu (Female River) in Punakha is notorious for carrying away at least one or two people every year.

Punakha Dzong, an impressive 17th century fortress with the Mo Chhu (female river) flowing past (Photo: Bhutan Foundation).
Punakha Dzong, an impressive 17th-century fortress with the Mo Chhu (Female River) flowing past (photo: Bhutan Foundation).

Sacred River

For Bhutanese, the relationship we have with our rivers is complex. Generally, we are taught to both fear and respect the river. Superstition and parental wisdom guide us away from rivers. We appreciate and revere them from afar. The famous pilgrimage site in central Bhutan, Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake), is but an eddy of dark water in the river as it swirls through a narrow rocky gorge. From its depths, the 15th century Bhutanese Terton, or “treasure revealer” named Pema Lingpa is believed to have brought to the surface spiritual treasures at this place. With a butter lamp in hand, he dove in and later emerged with the lamp still burning (hence the origin of the name).

Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) is an eddy in the Tang region of central Bhutan, and a famous pilgrimage site (photo: Bruce Bunting).
Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake), a famous pilgrimage site, is an eddy in the Tang River in central Bhutan (photo: Bruce Bunting).

We often associate lakes and rivers with deities and spirits. Inside Punakha dzong (fortress), there is purported to be a secret passage that leads to the water table underneath. With two rivers flowing on either side of the massive structure, it would not be surprising to hit water when digging underneath the 17th-century edifice. Such stories of mystery and intrigue filled my childhood.

Traditionally, we would not dare pollute or defile our rivers and streams. But these days, increasingly, urban waste, plastic, and litter end up in the water.

Agriculture, Cuisine, and Fish Diversity

Only side streams and springs are mostly useful for our agricultural systems, not our major rivers. Our fields are mostly elevated terraces while the big rivers flow in the valleys below them. Unless the river water is pumped upslope or diverted into irrigation canals further upstream, our rivers are not very useful for agriculture. However, Paro is one of the few places in the country where we do use river water for irrigation. This has been made possible through a network of canals originally built in collaboration with the Japanese. In most areas, drinking water is usually sourced from springs, small creeks, and streams.

Rice paddies in Paro, golden and ready for harvest (Photo: Bhutan Foundation).
Rice paddies in Paro during harvest season. A network of irrigation canals built in collaboration with the Japanese supply river water to irrigate much of the fields in low-lying parts of this valley (photo: Bhutan Foundation).

During the monsoons, our big rivers swell to become especially turbulent and dangerous. They carry along in their turbid torrents a lot of topsoil and debris. While driftwood gets strewn about on banks all along river courses, the alluvial load only benefits the vast agricultural plains of India and Bangladesh much further downstream. All of Bhutan’s rivers drain into the Brahmaputra River and eventually into the Bay of Bengal. However, the sand deposits in our rivers feed the ever increasing building frenzy, which is most noticeable in the booming urban areas and the huge hydropower projects.

We do not have sizeable communities that depend heavily on subsistence fishing, fishing tourism, or recreational fishing. There are, however, some important exceptions. Small communities such as the Khengpa in lower Zhemgang are more attuned to the rivers near them. They can swim and fish, and fish provides an important protein source for them.

Other communities in Wangduephodrang are known to prepare a local delicacy called Nya Dosem, or “fish baked between hot stones.” For newly-minted fishing enthusiasts, a government permit is required to carry out limited fishing in selected areas on certain days. Religious sites or auspicious days are off limits, as is the fish spawning season. And fishing by net is prohibited; only hooks with bait, spinners, or flies are permitted.

Only recently have we started learning more about our fish and riverine ecology. A preliminary study of Bhutan’s rivers has recently confirmed that Bhutan has over 90 different fish species. Other fish species that have yet to be identified could be thriving. The aquatic diversity is yet to be fully inventoried.

The Manas River, just a few kilometers before flowing through the India-Bhutan border near Royal Manas National Park (Photo: Bhutan Foundation).
The Manas River, just a few kilometers before flowing through the Indo-Bhutan border near Royal Manas National Park (photo: Bhutan Foundation).

Hydropower Dreams

Our relationship with our rivers changed in a big way in 1986 when the Chhukha Hydropower Project was first commissioned on the Wang Chhu. With power generation and its subsequent sale to India, clean hydropower would travel hundreds of kilometers from the mountains of Bhutan to the plains of India to feed a power-hungry neighbor. A sizeable revenue for a small developing mountainous country that had set its path to modernization only some 25 years earlier was realized.

Suddenly, Bhutan’s gushing Himalayan rivers were seen as a source of revenue and were often referred to as “white gold.” In the beginning, the approach to hydropower development was very Bhutanese: restrained, deliberate, and mindful. And structures were intended for only what was necessary – nothing more, nothing less. Only one river was dammed and the financing was mostly grant money with a comparatively smaller loan.

As time progressed, within the next two decades, Bhutan was suddenly emboldened to set a lofty goal to develop 10,000 MW of hydropower by 2020. In order to achieve this goal, the modus operandi would be to dam every major river in the country, and then some. This river-grabbing was cause for concern. When concerned citizens and the media questioned government authorities on the sudden aggressive hydropower goals, politicians and power advocates reassured them that the projects were environmentally friendly “run-of-the-river” schemes where only a part of the river was diverted into a headrace tunnel and put back into the main river further downstream. The extent of damage to aquatic systems when a whole river disappears into the mountains, as happens during dam construction, is not clearly understood at the moment – especially when no reliable study on such effects has been carried out in Bhutan.

Towards the question of disproportionate loans and financial dependency on foreign entities, the answer was always that the loans were “self-liquidating.” Citizens were told that there was no need to worry.

High voltage transmission lines in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam carry Bhutan's hydropower to India (Photo: Bhutan Foundation).
High-voltage transmission lines in the northeastern Indian state of Assam carry Bhutan’s hydropower to India (photo: Bhutan Foundation).

However, the geography of hydropower development at the moment is gravely different from 1986. India is aggressively developing its own hydropower plants across the Himalaya, while also going big on renewables such as wind and solar. Will Bhutan always have a guaranteed market in India in the face of its own big energy plans? With all the cost escalation hydropower projects are currently facing, how long will Bhutan be indebted to external financiers under shaky market conditions?

In response to unexpected delays, seismic surprises, and insurmountable cost-escalation, the government has now scaled back the earlier goal and slashed it by half to a more realistic target of 5,000 MW by 2022, according to the new Economic Development Policy 2017.

A Community-based Enterprise

Among the fish species recently surveyed are two native carp species that can grow to over 50 kilograms. The Golden Mahaseer (Tor putitora) is considered a globally endangered species. The Marang Jungle Camp, a tented camp run by the River Guides of Panbang (RGP), sits next to the Marangdut stream, a tributary of the mighty Drangme Chhu. This stream is one of the spawning tributaries for the Mahaseer and is, therefore, critical to their long-term survival. RGP adopted this stream and has committed themselves to protecting this very important spawning tributary for the Mahaseer. They are already preventing miscreants from illegally electrofishing using battery packs.

Golden mahaseer caught during an angling training course conducted recently (Photo: River Guides of Panbang).
Golden Mahaseer caught during a catch-and-release angling training conducted recently with support from WWF-Bhutan Program (photo: River Guides of Panbang).

The RGP was started in 2012 as a small river adventure company owned by ten young men from the Khengpa community of Panbang. They run the two big rivers that flow through their region: the Mangde and Drangme Chhu. They take tourists and locals on multi-day river expeditions and day trips and are excellent local guides who are knowledgeable about the biodiversity and culture of a region that is located next to the famous Royal Manas National Park, Bhutan’s first protected area and home to tigers, elephants, hornbills and the endemic long-tailed primate, the golden langur (Trachypithecus geei).

A golden langur, endemic to the region, sits atop a branch in Royal Manas National Park (Photo: Bruce Bunting).
A golden langur, endemic to the region, sits atop a branch in Royal Manas National Park (photo: Bruce Bunting).

For a Bhutanese, an audience with His Majesty the King is a highly cherished moment. Just last month, the River Guides of Panbang had the good fortune of receiving Their Majesties the King and Queen of Bhutan and the one-year-old Prince, His Royal Highness the Gyalsey, for lunch at the Marang Jungle Camp. According to the general manager Lam Dorji, “After this great honor, we have no excuse but to succeed. We must have accumulated enough collective good karma in our past lifetimes. We had the rare privilege of receiving Their Majesties in our humble camp. Our lives will not be the same again.”

Coincidentally, one of the first rafts RGP had in their small fleet was gifted to them by none other than His Majesty himself. During the recent visit, His Majesty granted further support and encouragement and commanded them to look after their natural environment. The RGP team is further motivated by this rare honor. His Majesty continues to be a magnanimous epitome of conservation leadership and public welfare, touching the lives of people in every corner of the country.

Guests look for wildlife on the banks of the Manas River on a River Guides of Panbang guided tour (photo: Bhutan Foundation).
Guests look for wildlife on the banks of the Manas River on a River Guides of Panbang rafting trip (photo: Bhutan Foundation).

As the first community-based organization that is using rivers to earn a livelihood, RGP is entering unchartered territory. The organization is made up of a handful of villagers from the area who see a future within their community. While they have all had some education, they do not see the need to migrate to urban areas seeking jobs like other educated village youth. They have become role models for youth in Panbang. Most importantly, they are also demonstrating, in a small way, that there are other ways Bhutanese can benefit from our rivers. They are making a case to keep some of Bhutan’s rivers wild and free. They are teaching us all that rural livelihoods and sustainable tourism can be built on free-flowing rivers. RGP is a sustainable enterprise project supported by the Bhutan Foundation.

For an account of fly-fishing on the Drangme Chhu in Bhutan, here is a movie that is showing at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on April 18th, 2017.

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Meet the Author

Tshewang Wangchuk
Tshewang Wangchuk, the first Bhutanese National Geographic Explorer, works as Executive Director for the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, DC. He also serves on the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy.