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ÅF creates sustainable hydropower in Bhutan

Bhutan has an extensive but as yet relatively unutilised potential energy source in the shape of hydropower. One of the country’s green valleys provides the setting for the Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project. ÅF has been tasked with evaluating the project using the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, a tool for assessing the sustainability of hydroelectric power projects.

International efforts to ensure the sustainable development and production of hydroelectric power have made great progress. One powerful tool is the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, an international protocol for assessing the sustainability of hydroelectric power projects from technical, economic, environmental and social perspectives. Only eleven people in the world are accredited to work with the protocol. Five of these people are approved to head such assessments, and one of them is Bernt Rydgren at ÅF. On behalf of the World Bank, ÅF has conducted an assessment in compliance with this protocol. This assignment was the first commercially procured application of the protocol, and as such marks the emergence of a completely new market in the field of sustainability for ÅF.

The Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project, a collaboration between the governments of Bhutan and India, was initiated in 2012 and is expected to be commissioned in 2018. The project, which is to utilise some of the energy available in the Mangdechhu River, has a strong focus on social, environmental and economic sustainability. It is unusual to see so much attention given to sustainability in the construction of a hydroelectric power plant.

“Bhutan has what is probably the soundest approach to environmental management in the world. It’s a unique country. The culture, the religion and the people’s connection to their natural surroundings make it particularly interesting to work there,” says Bernt.

Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol

The extensive requirements defined by the protocol encompass, in addition to assessing the technical and economic sustainability of the hydroelectric power plant, analysing environmental and social considerations such as climate impact and human rights. This tool gives Bhutan’s authorities an opportunity to assess the project outcome from a sustainability perspective, measured in terms of the global requirement level defined by the protocol. The protocol is divided into four different tools for the different project development phases, from general planning to operation and maintenance. In the case of Mangdechhu, the Implementation Tool, which is designed for the construction phase, has been used. Each tool covers a broad spectrum of different sustainability factors, directly linked to the separate phases and scored on a scale of 1–5. The requirement specifications are related to Good Basic Practice and Proven Best Practice in a global perspective.

“The work is very transparent, which is important if external stakeholders, authorities and the local population are to gain insight into what is being done and how the different sustainability aspects are being taken into account,” Bernt explains.

The results of the work were presented to a broad forum of interested parties in Thimphu, Bhutan, in April 2016. As a direct result of this work, the World Bank has awarded ÅF another contract to assist Bhutan’s Department of Hydro-power and Power Systems, a government agency under the Ministry for Economic Affairs, in producing manuals for sustainable hydropower development.

Sustainable hydropower as part of a sustainable economy

For a small, export-based economy the size of Bhutan’s, the ability to meet domestic energy needs internally while producing a sizeable surplus for export is a real asset. A lack of dependency on imported fossil fuels provides security to a nation such as Bhutan. The knowledge that investments in the renewable energy source are long term and sustainable means that the country can view the hydropower expansion as a substantial investment in its future. Bhutan is a small but strong player at the heart of the expansive Asian continent. The country has great potential in terms of tourism and its natural surroundings. But it is perhaps the desire to use its natural resources in a secure, sustainable and effective manner that can draw the world’s attention to this small country in the Himalayas over the coming years.

For more details about the protocol, visit