Addressing climate change concerns in Bhutan Himalaya



Bhutan is a landlocked country located in the eastern Himalayas with a population of less than a million. It  is predominantly an agricultural country engaged in traditional mixed farming, mainly for subsistence. The country can be divided into three broad physiographic zones; the Himalayan foothills, the inner Himalayas, and the great Himalayas. The country comprises of diverse landscapes incised with deep and narrow valleys cutting through steep mountain ranges and valley slopes. Bhutan is less than 200 km from southern border to northern border but the elevation ranges from about 80 m in the south to more than 7000 m in the north, encompassing heterogeneous landscapes. The varying microclimatic conditions and heterogeneous landscapes make Bhutan one of the most vulnerable countries with regard to impacts of climate change.

Although Bhutan opened its doors to the outside world only after 1960s, it has made tremendous progress in terms of socio-economic development and environmental conservation. Bhutan is especially famous for its extensive forests; more than 80 per cent of its land area is under forest cover. Forests are important components for socioeconomic development and spiritual  well-being  for man. Additionally, it protects the land from degradation. Forests are also an important component of the Bhutanese farming system as farmers obtain a variety of products and services from forests, such as leaf litter for animal bedding and for the production of organic manure. In addition to timber and fuel wood, non-timber forest products such as mushrooms and edible ferns are a significant source to supplement to the diet of local people as well as a source of income to many of them. Spiritually, forests and trees hold special value in Bhutanese Buddhism and local people protect many forested areas as citadels of various deities who are believed to be protectors of the locality in multiple ways.

Bhutan has significant areas under forests of which more than fifty per cent area is under protected system where habitat protection through increasing forest cover is the main priority. Forests as primary sources of organic manure for agriculture adds another dimension to the environmental goal of protecting and maintaining an extensive forest cover in Bhutan.

When the rest of the world was bracing to embark on a growthled  development model in the 1970s, Bhutan chose to embrace its deep rooted, spirituality based developmental philosophy known as Gross National Happiness (GNH). Environmental conservation represents one of the four pillars of GNH. The emphasis on environmental conservation was further reinforced by the Constitution of Bhutan in 2008, which stipulates that a minimum of 60 per cent of the total land area of the country must be maintained under forest cover at all times.

oday, Bhutan is not only a carbon neutral country, but it is also a carbon sink, making itself one of the few countries in the world to have negative carbon emissions. ‘Negative carbon emissions’ means that the forests of Bhutan absorb more carbon dioxide each year than is emitted by the sources of pollution such as emissions from factories or other sources, thus making it a net carbon sink country. Annually the country emits about 1.5 million tonnes of carbon whereas its forests absorb over 6 million tonnes of carbon.

Although Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world publicized as a successful country in terms of environmental conservation, but it also bears the brunt of climate change to which it has not contributed anything. The impacts of climate change results in retreating Himalayan glaciers, reduced crop farming and land degradation, with the impacts reaching beyond its borders. In Bhutan, the agricultural sector, for example, consisting of crop farming, horticulture and livestock, employs more than 69 per cent of the total population. Although agriculture is one of the most important sectors of the Bhutanese economy, its contribution to GDP has declined from 26 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2003 and 19 per cent in 2008. The reductions in agricultural yields would lead to an intensity of food imports and threaten food security in Bhutan. India is one of the main importers of potato from Bhutan and will be affected if crops fail. On the other hand, variability in precipitation, increasing snow and glacier melting resulting into greater intensity of river run-offs are likely affect millions of people living in the river valleys in Bhutan and beyond.

hydropowerTo overcome significant climatic impacts, Bhutan is exploring a series of mitigation and adaptation measures. An example is the use of alternative modes of transport such as gravity ropeways. Climate change is causing not only retreating glaciers but also drying up water sources, which is why Bhutan today is also concentrating its efforts towards watershed management. Over 90 per cent of water goes into generating hydropower. Bhutan is highly vulnerable to land related disasters. Preserving watersheds would not only contribute to ensure a continuous flow of water but also reduce soil erosion, landslides and flash-floods. Other immediate adaptation measures include improving the weather forecasting system, crop insurance to farmers (as incidences of crop damage has increased significantly over the years due to climate related disasters), and cold storage facilities for farmers.

Bhutan has ambitious pledges yet achievable targets to address the impacts of climate change which is a result of the farsightedness of its leaders who chose to consider value based development rather than running blindly after a monetary growth-led developmental model. By 2020, Bhutan aims to produce 100 per cent organically grown food and also aims to achieve carbon neutral or zero net greenhouse gas emissions. It also aims for zerowaste by 2030.

Despite immense difficulties in addressing climate change concerns as a land locked country, Bhutan remains realistic to the developmental philosophy embracing the notion that development must proceed with values and it must address the spiritual well-being of its people. Bhutan also seeks from its neighboring countries transboundary  cooperation for win-win outcomes. Protecting forests on the Himalayan watershed has the potential to address climate change issues through mitigation as carbon sinks and also reduce the climate related hazards through utilization of various ecosystem services that the forests produce in the Himalayan kingdom. It also has the potential to address climate related risks by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the neighboring states of India.

As Bhutan and India share common concerns on climate change, and the two countries are strategically linked, they need to explore more options and develop strategic partnerships. Supporting Bhutan’s policies on adaptation and mitigation measures would definitely benefit the interests of the two countries in the long term. Current engagement seems to be limited to hydro-power co-operation. Though it is significant, it must be comprehensively expanded to include other pertinent issues. Many of the issues can be achieved at the level of academic exchange and research collaboration. For instance, data collection standards and cooperative data sharing policies would help to address common issues like managing water resources and flow regimes, glacier dynamics, crop yield changes, land degradation, species composition and climate related disease controls.

Similarly, strengthening sectoral cooperation between countries can help in developing or adapting the best practices of local efforts that are expected to help local communities develop resilience against climatic impacts. Particular attention of course should be given to studies of river basins, specifically to identify vulnerable areas and to develop adaptive measures connected to landslides, floods and droughts.

Preserving natural resource is a shared task because nature does not mend ways according to boundaries. Over last many decades, Bhutan has shown a template of development that respects and cares for environment. But it is high time other countries also alter their ways to preserve the nature. Only then can all enjoy the endless wealth that mother earth has blessed us with.

The writer is a Lecturer with the Department of Forestry, College of Natural Resources, Royal University of Bhutan.