Yangchen C Rinzin 

The government is looking into forming an independent office under the Water Flagship Programme that will spearhead to address both drinking water and irrigation water supply shortage, according to Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering.

The office will solely work to ensure the availability of adequate water for drinking and irrigation in 20 dzongkhags and the four thromdes.

However, the government is still in discussion with flagship secretariat as to whether the independent office should be formed as a water agency or an independent body or an institution.

Lyonchhen said that following several meetings, including one held yesterday, it was decided that although it would start as a flagship programme, it could gradually be taken over by an independent office.

The members of the flagship have already done the groundwork for the framework. For instance, the framework will focus on how would it function if it is an agency, who will run the agency, and who will be involved to form the agency.

“While working on the flagship framework, we’ve managed to identify all the agencies and individuals involved in dealing with water supply issues,” Lyonchhen said. “We’ll continue to discuss, as we’re yet to decide what to name the office and draw its responsibilities and mandates.”

The programme as of now is led by the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. The team is also looking at developing a proper legal framework to govern the drinking water and irrigation issue.

Lyonchhen during the meet the press yesterday said that the water flagship programme would be fast-tracked. Initially, it was planned to implement the plans in 11 dzongkhags and the four thromdes in the first phase. The second phase would cover the rest of the nine dzongkhags.

“However, with limited time and His Majesty stressing on the importance of water resources, we’ve now decided to do away as phase-wise. We’ll give importance to all the dzongkhags at the same time,” he said.

Eleven dzongkhags and the four thromdes were chosen based on the dire need of water supply and about Nu 3 billion (B) was kept for the first phase. About Nu 2B was set aside for the second phase.

Protecting critical watersheds and wetlands, developing adequate and climate-resilient infrastructures, improving the drinking water quality surveillance and strengthening implementation of water legislation to provide round the clock safe drinking water and irrigation water, among others, are some of the important components of the flagship programme.

Lyonchhen said that while there was a budget shortfall, the budget would be adjusted by reprioritising 12th Plan activities, which Gross National Happiness Commission Secretariat (GNHCS) is already working on it. “We’ll use the budget that is not critical and can be cancelled.”

Another measure the team is exploring is to involve Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) and Royal Institute of Management (RIM) that will help to approach for proper and efficient water governance, water policies, and water technologies.

Lyonchhen said that without these three approaches, the present water shortage would not be solved, so research and innovation under technology should come from an academic institution. “RUB could look into creating a formal degree programme in water. We need someone with knowledge of water technology, long-term water sustainability policies. RUB and RIM can design the programme.”

However, today, even if the plans are ready to implement under the flagship programme, the biggest challenge would be to get skilled workers to take up the work related to water supply and irrigation, according to the GNHCS officials.

“We’ll inform you when we’re ready with what kind of independent office would come up and the way forward. The progress of the flagship is well on track,” an official said.

The Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (PHCB) 2017 revealed that only about 81 percent of housing units have a reliable water supply during the critical hours of the day, this is at 5am-8am, 11am -12pm and 5pm-9pm, and about 1.6 percent of households still needs to travel for at least 30 minutes to the nearest water sources.

While according to the National Irrigation Master Plan 2016, of the total 105,682.43 acres of cultivated land, 64,248 acres still depended on a rain-fed traditional irrigation system.