Choki Wangmo  | Wangduephodrang

If the Kabji Hoko Tsho (lake) bursts, Dongkola goenpa (between Paro and Thimphu) would be under water!

This is what village elders in the Punakha-Wangdue valley say when they discuss the lake. Some used this allegory to describe the size of the lake in upper Kabji valley in Punakha. Some in today’s context relate this to the impending dangers of a lake burst.

The Punakha-Wangdue valley, most part of it, is located along the red zone in the disaster management’s hazard zonation map. The two dzongkhags in the recent past experienced a glacial lake outburst flood.

Mindful of the impending risks, and to prepare and inform local government leaders on the state of climate, glaciers and associated risks of GLOFs in Punkha-Wangdue valley, a science seminar was conducted for local government (LG) leaders in Wangduephodrang yesterday.

It is expected that the skills of local leaders in understanding climate change adaptation and mitigation would be crucial in mitigating risks from natural disasters, especially from glacial lakes in the valley.

Their skills would be strengthened using hydro-met data and would let local leaders and communities have access to data.

Director of National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM), Karma Dupchu said,    “Hydro-met data has become more precious in the light of changing climate to understand the past and predict the future.”

The seminar, which also included officials from Punatsangchhu and Basochhu hydropower projects, was found necessary and timely as the flashfloods due to Thorthomi subsidiary lake breach in June caused panic and damage in the downstream settlements.

Karma Dupchu said that after the 1994 flood in Punakha, this year’s flood was the second extreme event. “The most significant impact of climate change in Bhutan is the formation of supra-glacier lakes due to the accelerated retreat and melting of glaciers with increasing temperature.”

The melting of ice from these receding glaciers are increasing the volume of water in glacial lakes, melting the ice core within the moraine dams. It leads to destabilisation and damming materials, increasing the risk of GLOFs to a critical level.

This year alone, Bhutan reported cases of extreme climatic events such as windstorm, delayed monsoon, highest temperature record and shortage of drinking and irrigation water. It also caused climate-induced epidemic such as dengue in different parts of the country.

Official records showed that the month of April, May and June recorded the highest monthly average temperature compared to the last eight years.

Wangduephodrang dzongdag, Sonam Jamtsho said that it has been about four years since the dzongkhag received untimely monsoon. “People left their lands fallow and the dzongkhag administration took risk by encouraging the farmers to cultivate.”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report 2019 found that glacier retreat and snow changes are causing decline in agriculture yield across the world.

About 70 percent of the settlements in the country are along the river valleys. Out of 2,674 glacier lakes in Bhutan, 17 were identified as potentially dangerous.

Meanwhile, a detailed assessment concluded that the flashflood of June 20 was caused by excessive melting of the glaciers, which in turn fractured ice towards the upper end of the glacier.

“Sudden displacement pushed ice masses along with water,” said Phuntsho Tshering from cyrosphere services division in NCHM.

However, if a total breach of Thorthomi lake occurs, it would have triple the effect of the 1994 flood.

NCHM in collaboration with the Department of Local Government organised the seminar. UNDP funded the programme, attended by 18 LG leaders from Punakha, Gasa and Wangduephodrang dzongkhags.

Director of local governance, Kado Zangpo, said that there were plans to provide fund to about 100 gewogs to carry out climate change adaptation and mitigation activities.

   Out of 2,674 glacier lakes in Bhutan, 17 are identified as potentially dangerous. (Photo: NCHM)