The world observes World Humanitarian Day today amidst the double crisis of COVID-19 and the impact of climate change

As someone who has always felt vulnerable to climate change, Jana Pelzom, 23, spends a lot of time thinking about a global crisis, which could accelerate the impact of climate change. 

She was worried when COVID-19 struck but, reassured herself given the successful containment of other health outbreaks in the past. 

However, more than a year on, the world is still reeling from the pandemic. Compounding this reality is the ongoing and devastating impacts of climate change.

“I always questioned the ability of societies to respond to climate change. I knew that climate change would be the defining global crisis of my lifetime,” said Jana. “I just hadn’t really expected there would be another.”

Bhutan’s response to this double crisis, however, remains a beacon of hope. Guided by exceptional leadership and collective solidarity, Bhutan finds itself amongst few countries in the world that have today managed to successfully respond to both.

UN Bhutan has partnered with the Royal Government to navigate these extraordinary challenges during the pandemic year, a time when the country also marks its 50th year as a member to the United Nations.

UNICEF and WHO assisted the Royal Government to successfully inoculate 90 per cent of its eligible adult population within a week, an achievement hailed as the world’s fastest vaccine rollout. The UN also provided comprehensive emergency support and advocated public health messages.  

WHO Country Representative Dr. Rui Paulo de Jesus said the UN and the Royal Government worked together to protect every Bhutanese from COVID-19 and to develop a stronger and a more resilient health system. “We aim to protect the most vulnerable among us and ensure Bhutan’s contribution towards the global effort to end the pandemic,” he said.

With the country’s economic growth declining to 1.5 per cent in 2019-20 from 3.8 per cent the previous year, the Royal Government has detailed a comprehensive national response to COVID-19.  

To support the country’s long-term recovery from the pandemic, the UN provided Nu 787.5 million (USD 10.5M) to the Royal Government. Additional funds from the Secretary General’s UN COVID-19 Fund were also provided for education continuity and livelihoods in the tourism and agriculture sectors. 

While Bhutan has managed the pandemic well, the country faces serious shocks in key economic sectors such as tourism, which contributes more than 9 per cent to the GDP and is the biggest employer to the growing number of unemployed youth. 

The UN is supporting the Royal Government with projects that consider opportunities for contributing to green recovery, boosting of domestic tourism, employment and increasing community resilience by mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into tourism development. 

The UNDP Resident Representative, Azusa Kubota, said that while global attention has been drawn to the pandemic crisis, the recent UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms the gravity of, perhaps, a more pressing and long-lasting crisis, climate change. Bhutan’s continued commitment to pursuing a greener and sustainable recovery from the crisis is inspiring and courageous, and exemplary in the global context. The most significant impact of climate change in Bhutan is the formation of supra-glacial lakes due to the accelerated retreat of glaciers, a result of increasing temperatures. 

“Glaciers that are lost are lost forever,” was said by Lyonchen Dr. Lotay Tshering.  “How many lives, not just human beings, but other lives are dependent on that? Not just the country and the economy, but the whole lifecycle will be destroyed.” 

To draw attention to what is being lost to climate change, the UN will initiate a memorial for a glacier in Laya, Gasa in November.

In June, Bhutan raised its climate ambitions by committing to its second Nationally Determined Contribution ahead of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26). This commits Bhutan to remain carbon neutral and ensure that greenhouse gas emissions do not exceed carbon sequestration by its forests. 

‘A code red for humanity’ is what Secretary General (SG)of the UN Antonio Guterres called last month’s report of the IPCC. 

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable:  greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible,” said the UN SG. 

The UN is supporting these pursuits by assisting vulnerable communities to become more resilient to climate-induced disasters, through low emission development strategies focused on clean technology, renewable energy and green jobs creation and smart climate resilient agricultural practices. 

Meanwhile, one of the immediate impacts of the pandemic were felt by the urban residents, who depend totally on imports from across the border and supplies from the rural farming community. 

The UN supports the Royal Government in intensive technology-induced commercial scale vegetable production. Recognizing the immediate benefits in domestic vegetable production, substituting imports and employment generation, the urban vegetable programme was rolled out nationwide. 

Head of WFP Bhutan, Svante Helms, said this was part of a preparedness plan to ensure food security during the pandemic. WFP worked with the Royal Government to maintain food supply for half of the Bhutanese population and supported the development of the National Food Security Emergency Action Plan.

The UN believes the world can learn a lot from Bhutan, which remains resilient to the double burden of climate change and COVID-19. 

The UN Resident Coordinator, Gerald Daly said as His Majesty’s leadership has inspired all Bhutanese to unite in combating this pandemic and as the UN looks forward to the next 50 years, the UN will continue to support the Royal Government in providing practical support to all sectors of Bhutan’s society: ‘This is one way we can practically follow-through on the Gross National Happiness values’.

“Despite these challenges, we are focused on increasing our ambition for the country and people of Bhutan, because within every challenge lies an opportunity,” said Gerald Daly. “This is especially so for the most vulnerable sections of society – this is the way to ensure we are leaving no one behind.”

Contributed by 

UN Communications Group