Sitting in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan has been acutely aware of its vulnerabilities due to climate change. As global temperatures rise and eat the glaciers away at a dramatic rate, it is a sobering reminder that we can only prepare to minimise the destruction of lives and properties downstream.
We have not forgotten the glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) from Luggye Tsho on October 7, 1994, the most catastrophic yet that wrought unprecedented damage to the lives, livestock and properties along the Phochhu. Last Friday, when Thorhtormi’s two subsidiary lakes breached the dams and threatened a GLOF, we saw ourselves driven helter-skelter with panic. The kind of response to the news down from institutions to the people was perhaps only justified. How else could we have reacted? Fortunately, there wasn’t another devastating GLOF.
According to National Geographic, in the Himalayan Mountains that is home to the third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world after Antarctica and the Arctic, glaciers are losing billions of tonnes of ice and that the ice loss is accelerating with rising temperatures.
The formation of supra-glacial lakes due to glacier retreat could become the single biggest challenge for Bhutan in the coming decades. According to some studies, glaciers in Bhutan are receding at a rate of 30-60 metres, maybe even more, per decade. What this means is that the receding glaciers are increasing the volume of water in glacial lakes and destabilising the dams, increasing the risk of GLOF.
Here is where the imperative of climate change adaptation comes. For Bhutan, it is critically significant because we depend on water from our mountain for almost everything, particularly for irrigation and hydropower. Are our sector-specific policies taking into account the impact of climate change on our water sources? Pessimism may not be healthy, but the clock is ticking.
Scientists have warned that the Himalayan region could be facing an epic disaster between extreme heat waves and reduced water flows from the Himalayas. That there is today, more than ever, a need for a societal awakening and to spend a significant part of the economy to avoid the catastrophic risks we’re facing is a serious warning.
Closer to home and, more to the threats of GLOF, having some sense of the scale of damage in the event of a GLOF twice the destructive capacity of the 1994 flood might help us prepare although never adequately. Going by some estimates over 100 buildings, 300 people, close to 16 historical monuments, a bridge and kilometres of roads could suffer severe damage. Half the fertile Punakha and Wangdue valleys could be submerged under water.
The good thing that we have in this day and age is the early warning systems. However, these are there only to help us minimise the damage on lives and property.