Clear and present danger

There is good news and bad news with the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology. 

The bad news is that our glaciers are retreating. The two glaciers benchmarked for research is losing ice at an alarming rate. Glaciologist says it is happening with all the glaciers.

The good news is that we have data, crucial scientific data to intervene, not to stop glaciers retreating, which is not in our hands, but to act and base our policies and planning on what the data says.

Like a glaciologist said, many Bhutanese cannot look beyond glacial lake outburst flood when we hear glaciers. The hazard from glacier lake outburst is there, but study of glaciers is more than that.

As a mountainous country, much of our water sources are from the glacier-fed rivers and streams. Glaciers and glacial lakes are vital in studying our water resources. It is also a good indicator of climate change and its impact on a mountainous and fragile ecosystem like ours.

We can relate to the last massive GLOF in 1994. It triggered a call for glacial research. The immediate reaction 26 years ago was the need for detailed studies at the source of our rivers. Since then, glaciologists, environmentalists and even policy makers had been to our glaciers. There are several reports and data.

How much of the findings and recommendations are used in our decision-making or planning process is not known.

With improved technology and qualified local expertise, our researches have improved. Their findings could guide planning our five-year Plans and even political party pledges. We have a water flagship programme, but the NHCM is not involved although they have a repository of data that could shape decisions.

We plan and promise of supplying 24X7 drinking water and interrupted irrigation water supply. The focus is on building infrastructure. Infrastructure alone will not ensure water supply. That is why we have dry irrigation canals and water taps after spending millions and raising hopes. 

Glacial studies could determine the flow of water from the sources, the glaciers, in our case. It is more important for the many mega hydropower projects that we have planned along our rivers. It would be an irony if all the glaciers disappear before we finish all the projects. At the rate of glaciers retreating, it is possible. Scientific studies have found out that increase in temperature is worse in the highlands than in the plains.

We cannot stop a glacial lake outburst. But we can prepare and reduce the impact on lives and properties. Knowing this, hazard zonation maps are drawn and early warning systems put in place. How much is adhered is there to see.

According to the hazard zonation map along the Punakha- Wangdue valley, Khuruthang and Bajo town, the two most populated in the valley is in the red zone. Settlements are increasing and more structures are added every year even with the red alert. The NHCM can only zone a place. They have no authority to move people to higher grounds. It is up to the central and local governments.

One complaint all this while was the lack of data. Today we have crucial scientific data not only to help us plan and mitigate the impact of climate change, but also influence the climate change narrative in the eastern Himalayas. If we are not using it, it will be a disaster bigger than a GLOF.

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