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The Transformative Potential of Tunnels – The Way Forward for Bhutanโ€™s Transportation

Bhutan, nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, is a nation of stunning natural beauty and unique cultural heritage. However, this picturesque country faces formidable geographical challenges that have limited its economic development and connectivity. In this article, we explore how Bhutan can harness the power of tunnels to unlock its full potential and reap a plethora of benefits, both economic and environmental.

As it stands today, tunneling in Bhutan has primarily been associated with hydroelectric power projects. While these projects have been instrumental in meeting the nationโ€™s energy needs, it is high time to broaden the scope of tunneling to include transportation infrastructure. Why restrict the use of tunnels to the energy sector when they can serve as the linchpin for Bhutanโ€™s economic growth and overall development?

The concept of tunneling for highways in Bhutan has been a subject of discussion for years, yet it remains largely unrealized. The time has come to turn these dreams into concrete plans and take action to reshape Bhutanโ€™s transportation landscape, creating a healthier, more economically vibrant future for its citizens.

The idea of constructing tunnels in Bhutan is not new; it has been proposed and discussed for a significant period. The reasons for the delay in implementing these proposals remain somewhat elusive, but the urgency of the matter cannot be overstated. Bhutan must embark on this tunneling journey to ensure economic growth and shorten travel distances within the country.

Initial proposals envisioned tunnels linking Thimphu to Paro and Thimphu to Wangdue. These tunnels could serve as critical arteries, facilitating connectivity to even more remote regions such as Trashigang. The Bhutanese road department has already conducted prefeasibility studies for three tunnel proposal sites: Thimphu to Phuentsholing highway, Thimphu to Wangdue, and Thimphu to Paro highway. Substantial investments have likely been made in these studies and associated paperwork.

The advantages of tunnel roads are manifold and far-reaching. Foremost among them is the significant reduction in travel time and distance. This translates to a substantial decrease in vehicle operating costs, a factor that would directly impact the economic well-being of the countryโ€™s citizens. Furthermore, tunnel roads enhance road safety by bypassing unstable areas, reducing the continuous maintenance costs of traditional roads, and ensuring reliable access even in the harsh winter months, when snow and ice can cripple surface roads. Additionally, tunneling projects can improve traffic flow, which is crucial for Bhutanโ€™s burgeoning economy.

Given the substantial investments already made in these proposals, it is paramount to initiate these projects without further delay. Failure to do so would render all previous expenditures futile, despite the numerous benefits they could bring to Bhutanโ€™s economy and infrastructure. Thus, it is imperative that the Department of Roads (DOR) takes the lead in reviving these initiatives before it is too late.

To illustrate the potential benefits of tunneling for transportation, one can look to countries with similar geographical challenges. Switzerland, for example, shares Bhutanโ€™s mountainous terrain and has fully embraced tunneling as a solution. Switzerlandโ€™s efficient and accessible transportation network is a testament to the transformative power of tunnels. Bhutan can take inspiration from such success stories and replicate them on its own terms, tailoring tunneling projects to its unique needs and challenges.

The benefits of tunneling extend far beyond the realms of transportation. They have the potential to redefine Bhutanโ€™s economic landscape. Tunnels can serve as a catalyst for regional development by improving access to remote areas, unlocking their economic potential, and reducing regional disparities. This would not only promote economic growth but also foster greater social equity within the country.

Moreover, tunneling projects are labor-intensive and have the potential to create numerous job opportunities for Bhutanese citizens. This could help address issues of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among the youth, and contribute to poverty reduction.

Furthermore, tunnels can play a pivotal role in promoting sustainable tourism. Bhutan, known for its unspoiled natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, could benefit immensely from improved accessibility to its tourist destinations. Tunnels would ensure year-round access to these attractions, reducing the impact of seasonal weather challenges. Additionally, increased tourism revenue could contribute significantly to the countryโ€™s economy, supporting vital sectors such as education and healthcare.

From an environmental perspective, tunneling offers the potential for reduced carbon emissions. Shorter travel distances and more efficient transportation routes can lead to decreased fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. This aligns with Bhutanโ€™s commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability, which is enshrined in its constitution.

To finance these ambitious tunneling projects, Bhutan can explore partnerships with donor countries that are willing to provide funding and support through bilateral agreements. Such collaborations can be mutually beneficial, fostering international relations while simultaneously advancing Bhutanโ€™s infrastructure development goals. Donor countries with a vested interest in Bhutanโ€™s success may see this as an opportunity to contribute to the universal aim of minimizing fuel usage and combating climate change.

Bhutan stands at a critical juncture where tunneling can be the key to unlocking its full potential. The benefits are far-reaching, encompassing economic growth, job creation, improved accessibility, and sustainable tourism development. The time for action is now, and the Department of Roads must take the lead in revitalizing these proposals. As Bhutan continues to evolve and progress, tunnels can be the cornerstone of its journey toward prosperity, sustainability, and a brighter future for all its citizens. Itโ€™s time for Bhutan to embrace the transformative power of tunnels and pave the way to a prosperous tomorrow.

Tshering, Thimphu

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