Climate change followed by forest degradation and deforestation and other anthropogenic activities are perceived as the main factors inter alia that contribute to water sources drying in Bhutan. Of the 7399 water sources currently used by the Bhutanese people, 1856 (25.1%) are drying up while 69 (0.9%) water sources have dried up according to the assessment and mapping exercise coordinated by Watershed Management Division under Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS)and carried out involving all the field offices of DoFPS located in 205 geogs and 1044 chiwogs. In the absence of empirical studies carried out on the same, the information on the status of water sources were gathered through focus group discussions and key informant surveys to set the baseline, which can be used as reference for future studies.
Springs (5001) and streams (1898) are found to be major sources for drinking and irrigation with marshes, ponds, rivers and lakes contributing a negligible portion. More than 76% of these water sources are used only for drinking with users ranging from one household to 4850 households per water source. About 11% of the water sources are used only for irrigation purposes and some 7.8% are used both for drinking and irrigation. The other uses of the water sources mapped comprise of use for cottage and small industries and for healing purposes. The activity also recorded some 269 water sources potential for abstraction in the future from the vicinity of the settlements and institutions.
A preliminary mapping of the water sources was coordinated by WMD in 2017-2018 also involving the field offices under DoFPS. Nonetheless, due to limited experience that time, some vital information like discharges of the water sources were not collected and also could not cover for whole country. Therefore, the current exercise not only validates the previous exercise, but also updates the information for whole of the 20 dzongkhags. The activity also includes a one-time (Spring season of 2021) discharge information of all the water sources mapped that can be used as reference for future studies.
As watersheds play a key role in maintaining both the quantity and quality of the water sources, the comprehensive mapping of 2021 also included assessment of watersheds where the water sources and their springsheds are located, which were then classified in to pristine, normal and degraded to identify areas to focus and intervene. The water sources currently fall within 527 sub-watersheds, of which 149 of them are classified as degraded based on number of users and their conditions. Additional information such as number of households and institutions depending on each water sources, and the probable factors that impacted the water sources and surrounding watersheds to get holistic picture of the water sources and its environment were also collected.
However, the water sources assessed and mapped does not include all the water sources available in Bhutan. It is confined to water sources currently used by the people for various purposes and few potential sources in the vicinity of the settlements and institutions that could be used in the future. Therefore, the number of water sources stated here should not be construed as the exhaustive list of water sources available in Bhutan. The mapping was conducted with objective to record number of water sources currently used by the Bhutanese people along with its status and condition of the watershed where it is located, number of households/institutions depending on each of the water sources and their discharges mainly to establish the baseline for water sources and their status for reference and future studies
Having said that, the report from the water sources assessment and mapping can provide support to the stakeholders in making informed decisions with reference to the current situation in designing appropriate infrastructure for drinking and irrigation water supply based on quality and quantity of the water sources available. Likewise, the information generated can be used for any water related investments, be it for recreation or commercial purposes, to make appropriate investments and prevent waste of time and resources. In general, the report and its contents will enable Bhutan to understand the situation of each of the water sources currently used and help come up with intervention measures (where required) to protect and conserve the water sources that support the livelihood of more than 65% of the farming population. DoFPS has already initiated pilot schemes to revive drying water sources in Paro, Sarpang, Wangdue, Tashigang and Samtse Dzongkhags, which can be out scaled in other areas.
Nonetheless, the task of protecting, conserving water source areas and reviving, cannot be left alone to DoFPS. The local government and the communities who are the beneficiaries are well placed to understand the situation of the water sources should take the onus. As forest degradation and deforestation are sighted as major factors contributing to water sources drying up, any developmental activities initiated should be mindful not to disturb the water sources and its recharge areas. The policy makers, implementer and public should understand that, without the natural vegetative cover afforded by the forest, rainfall will directly turn into run off, water quality will be poor and infiltration will be limited due to which the underground aquifers will continue to deplete and the water source drying issue will continue to rise and the situation will only worsen with climate change. DoFPS on its part will continue its efforts in protecting the forest in the recharge areas while also advocating and building capacity to technically support to solve water source drying issues through springshed management. The capacity of our field staff placed in all geogs across the country will be built continuously to act as catalyst to advocate and provide necessary support wherever and whenever required in Springshed management.
As management and conservation of watersheds enhance resilience of forest ecosystems and enable communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change, the assessment and mapping report foresee the need for enhanced focus and investment in all the watersheds in general and springsheds in particular where water sources areas are located and sustainably manage them. Further, as the status of the water sources are based on people’s perceptions, there is need to undertake empirical studies to authenticate the water source drying issues. In the immediate future, DoFPS recommends undertaking the springshed management using the following to try and reverse the depleting water source aquifers to fuel the springs, streams, lakes, ponds and marshes that support the livelihood of the people:
• Identify and designate the recharge areas of the drying water sources that caters to larger communities for protection
• Design and implement intervention measures in the recharge areas to enhance the water recharge
• Enhance capacity of DoFPS field staffs to provide technical support to local governments and communities to upscale and uptake the spring revival and protection measures within their own locality.
• Continued advocacy and trainings on importance of watershed conservation and strengthen engagement to build capacity of local leaders & communities and relevant stakeholders
• Periodically measure the discharge of water sources assessed in 2021 to generate a time series data to see the trend in status of water sources (whether water sources are drying up or not)
Director, Department of Forest and Park Services