Three years ago, around this time of year, I was on a river excursion in Bhutan. We journeyed for a few days in Punakha, one of the country’s central districts. We were there to survey two large hydropower projects that were being constructed in the habitat of the endangered White Bellied Heron, a bird found in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.
Tourists here know little about the bird; they come to see the monastery and government headquarters that were built at the picturesque confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the headwaters of the Punatsangchu River.
After speaking to guides responsible for monitoring the heron’s movements, we set out one evening to look for the bird. It’s a solitary bird, known to frequent undisturbed wetland and riverine habitats. After about an hour of surveying a suggested stretch of the Pho Chu, we sighted a tall, white-bellied bird, at a distance of perhaps 500 meters. We swiftly moved closer, until we were just inside 200 meters away, and clicked a somewhat fuzzy zoom-in image in fading light. The next morning, our efforts to get a better image of the heron were unsuccessful.
The White Bellied Heron is listed as a critically endangered species, which means that less than 250 individuals survive in the wild. It’s estimated that just 60 of these herons are left in the world. Bhutan is home to about 26-30 individuals, or half the total population. There are six to eight individuals in India, and 22-24 in Myanmar. One juvenile was reportedly spotted in China in 2014, but it did not survive.
Saving the White Bellied Heron
The story of the White Bellied Heron on the brink of extinction follows the classic narrative of the struggle between conservation and economic development.
Bhutan knows well that the construction and operation of hydropower projects is at odds with the protection of the critically endangered heron. What makes matters worse is the type of hydropower projects Bhutan currently has under construction: peaking power projects. With these types of projects, the river water is held up for 18-20 hours when electricity is not generated. This temporary drought is followed by a gush of water for four to six hours during the evening, when electricity is generated to meet the peak demand for electricity. This turning off and on of river flows disturbs the biodiversity, affecting everything from fish populations to species lower down in the food chain. It’s also well-known that birds have collided with or been electrocuted by power lines.
The above-mentioned impacts are not just theoretical. For instance, similar impacts have been observed in the two decades after the commissioning the 336 MW Chukha hydropower project. According to a Bhutanese expert, the number and diversity of birds in the catchment area of the said project declined due to a decline in fish population. Likewise, it is feared that the fish the heron feeds on may not be available in the future due to the dams blocking fish migration to its habitat upstream.
This is not about just one bird: The sighting of the heron is an indicator of health and wellbeing of the mountainscape, the river, and the teeming biodiversity, all of which are interconnected. By looking to the White Bellied Heron very much in the same way India’s conservationists look to the tiger, the green lobby is not only seeking to protect one species but looking to moderate a wide range of activities, including the unchecked construction of hydropower projects and transmission lines, in order to better check and mitigate impacts on river catchments.
But all is not lost. The Royal Society for Protection of Nature, an NGO in Bhutan, is studying and monitoring the White Bellied Heron, and has successfully bred one bird in captivity. Yet research and conservation efforts have been hampered due to lack of funds, which could be used to study the feeding habits, tagging and tracking, and installation of flight diverters on power lines. Although the Royal Government of Bhutan is now in the process of providing a certain level of protection to the heron, there are no tourism or conservation efforts, beyond a few scattered billboards to help conserve the bird population. Much of the ornithological focus is on the Black-Necked Crane, roughly 400-500 of which migrate to Phobjika in central Bhutan.
Bhutan is gradually recognising the need for River Basin Planning and conducting Cumulative Impact Assessments for a cascade of hydropower projects in a river. But while there has been slow progress on this front, Bhutan has five large hydropower projects under construction, which will not only make the highland nation self-sufficient in its energy needs, but also enable it to earn revenue from the export of surplus electricity to India.
After these projects are completed, experts suggest that Bhutan hit the pause button on its aggressive hydropower policy; reflect on the cumulative impacts of all proposed projects; and picture the decline in fish populations, the probable extinction of the heron, and the loss of free-flowing rivers. And then, as any sovereign nation must, proceed.