People grappling with water shortage

Choki Wangmo | Dagana

Harkati Tsho, Norbudzingkha — A bright day on the hilltop of the sleeping Dagapela town.

About 100 people from the neighbouring gewogs are busy. In a decorated tent, five monks are preparing for the deity appeasing ritual in front of a tiny altar.

They wait for their MP’s visit. He has promised to help them revive the lakes and solve the acute drinking water problems for once and all.

Phurpa Lhamo Sherpa, 53, is thrilled. With age, it is increasingly difficult for her to get easy access to drinking water. Water needs at her home has increased with two school-going children.

Every day, she walks 30 minutes asking, begging, for water from her relatives in other gewogs. Sometimes she hires pickup trucks, but this is becoming increasingly beyond her means.

Without water, she has to abandon farm works, the main source of family income.

For the past 35 years, the drinking water shortage in Gozhi Toed did not get much attention. The situation has become dire for half of the 40 households in the chiwog. For two months in winter, the villagers do not have a drinking water. Since their water source at Chichibi and Jhorpokhori (four lakes) dried up, hopes of an easy access to drinking water was low.

Lakes are the main sources of drinking and irrigation water in Dagana. Records with the dzongkhag show that out of 21 lakes spread across eight of the 14 gewogs in Dagana, seven have dried up and six are drying up.

Without studies, it is difficult to categorise these lakes.

A lecturer of College of Natural Resources, Jambay, who also closely worked with the communities in Dagana, said that the lakes could be barrier lakes as drainage lines are blocked and old gullies have dried up. He also indicated that some could be karst lakes as there are large holes on the other side of the lakes.

Communities have come together to save their water sources. But only few were successful.

A Gozhi Toed resident, Sherub, formed a committee to revive the lake in the earlier days. He said that by the time he resettled in Gozhi 11 years ago, the lakes had started to dry up. “The lakes were reduced to tiny ponds.”

Volunteers carried out works to clean the lakes, planted trees and sought divine support by installing lubums near the lakes.

Three years ago, Nima Wangdi Sherpa and his friends dug up Panatsho at Norbudzingkha to fill their water tanks. It was the only source of water for his community. Out of three lakes, only one remains today.

They are now starting the revival works with the support of their MP.

Villagers created an artificial lake, Harkati Tsho, on Mingma Sherpa’s private land which is the water source for many housheolds in Tsendagang and Gozhi gewogs. They received a fund support of nu 45,000 from the gewog administration for the project.

“When people resettled, they had to cut tress. It might have caused the lakes to dry up,” said Mingma Sherpa.

Norbuzingkha has been facing water shortage for the past 18 years. Chandra Bdhr Sherpa recalls playing in streams and drawing water from springs as a young boy. “We didn’t have to depend on the lakes. Now, we have to go without water for three months in winter. It is challenging for the elderly, children, and women.”

Bhutan is endowed with abundant water resources. Combined with snow, ice, freshwater lakes, running streams, rivers, and ground water. Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world. With an average flow of 2,238 m3/s, Bhutan generates 70,572 million cubic metres per annum, i.e. 94,500 m3 per person per year, the highest in the region.

However, a recent study by the Watershed Management Division revealed that of 6,555 water sources in the country, 2,317 (35 percent) are drying up; 147 sources have already dried up.

Samtse, Tsirang, Mongar, Wangdue, and Dagana are severely affected.

Jambay said that lakes are drying across the country due to changes in the catchment area of the lake. “Most of the lakes in Bhutan are rainfed.  During monsoon, it enlarges due to rainwater from the catchment.”

He said that tree plantation at the catchment prevents rainwater from flowing directly into the lake, so the lakes dry up. The leaves, he said, accelerate the deposition of organic minerals and increase nutrition, making the water shallow to support aquatic plants and allow evapotranspiration.

He recommended reviving drying lakes in Bhutan by creating an environment similar to what existed in the past. It could be done by clearing the catchment of the lake so that rainwater will flow directly into lakes.

Studies show that more than 60 percent of the lakes around the world are on the verge of shrinking due to the impacts of climate change.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series says that climate change will increase both water stress and water-related hazards. Precipitation is expected to decrease in the southern plains that are already water stressed, resulting in an even greater risk of droughts.

The impact of climate change on water resources not only affects the water availability but also food security, energy production, industrial sectors, and overall health of ecosystems and inhabitants.

Bhutan’s Third National Communication to the UNFCCC stated that in the future, summer months are predicted to become wetter and warmer while winter months are expected to be drier, making the overall system more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It will result in the abundant availability of water in warmer months but less during winter months.

Jambay said that the drying up of lakes is caused by climate change. Due to the increase in temperature, more water is lost through evapotranspiration, resulting in more lakes drying up. With climate change, the rainfall patterns have also changed.

Climate researcher and a lecturer of College of Natural Resources, Om Katel (PhD), said lake ecosystem such as lake surface temperature, evaporation, and water level respond dramatically to climate change impacts. “Lakes are critical natural resources that are sensitive to climate change impacts.”

In the Himalayas, studies confirm that the shrinkage of water in lakes is associated with the reduction in the amount of precipitation that plays a key role in lake dynamics, he said. “Rainfall data in Bhutan show that the precipitation pattern; intensity and frequency, has changed. Such changing pattern affects the recharging of aquifers including the water budget in the lakes.”


This article is funded by Bhutan Media Foundation’s Climate Change Reporting Grant