An eight-year-old girl from Lunana, Chimi Yangzom pleaded with world leaders at the 77th UN General Assembly to save her village. In her letter to the Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, Chimi Yangzom expressed her concerns about glacial lakes in the mountains becoming bigger due to global warming threatening her village downstream. She solicited global action to save her village.
Her request is not something far-fetched. And we need not look far back in history to realise how realistic her concerns are. Bhutan received a very rude wake-up call in 1994 when the Lugge Tsho burst its banks and flooded the Punakha valley, with a disastrous impact downstream all the way to India.
The message from the little girl from the remotest part of Bhutan could not be louder at a time when, not only is farming our main occupation, but our modernised economy is largely dependent on hydropower. We are almost entirely dependent on the health and stability of our lakes. And they will always be a vital source of life for us.
The signs are that, if current trends continue, our glacial lakes will melt. The climate will also get warmer and people’s lifestyles will change. In fact, we might see much more population movements around the region. As it is, countries in South Asia are already worried about the rising sea levels and earthquakes.
What happens, for example, to the energy of our rivers that we are converting into hydropower? If the global predictions are true, our glacial lakes could be dry soon after the Punatsangchhu I project is completed, considering the work progress. And that may put an end to the brilliant concept of this clean environment-friendly energy.
The global community is meeting in November to discuss climate change. There will be much lobbying and commitments made, but it will be unrealistic to expect that people in the industrialised nations that are causing global warming will quickly change their lifestyles. We should be prepared to nurse our sense of helplessness into the foreseeable future.
But there are steps that Bhutan can take to further preserve our environment or at least stop emulating the unsustainable lifestyle that is the current trend. Gross National Happiness, if it means anything to us, requires that we take the reasoned development path.
For instance, with the onset of winter, most of the valleys see greatly increased air pollution from cars and industries. The smog is getting thicker every year. Yet vehicle imports continue to spike. The road and loan policies are geared toward buying more cars.
We have talked about alternative fuels, public transport to reduce private cars, efficient technologies, and ecological management for years. We have made some headway in terms of electric cars and cooking stoves but these have still remained pilot projects. Not only the hills around us are being stripped of trees, but the trees around the inhabited areas are also losing their branches.
And solutions are restricted to the ideas that are exchanged at meetings and social media.