Lhakpa Quendren

Heavy rainfall and hailstorms in Gangtey-Phobjikha valley, Wangdue in summer cause flooding.

The flash floods, in what is described as an unusual weather event in the village, have caused substantial damage to crops, leaving them with pretty much nothing by the harvest season.

Villagers say that in the recent past, heavier rainfall and hailstorm events have increased, causing flash floods and difficult times for the farmers.

In 2020, there was a landslide in Drang Chewog in Phobji Gewog which damaged acres of potato farms.

Passang, 50, from Chumichen village, said that the landslides have become more common which destroy crops and fields.

He said that the hailstorm damaged more than half of his potato fields. “I lost more than 60 packets of potatoes to soil erosion in 2020,” he said.

Such climate hazards are contributing adversely to human settlements, social cohesion and economic hardships, among others.

Passang said that the flash floods leave a lasting impact on farming activities. “It takes years to restore the soil fertility and productivity.”

He added that the farmers are at the receiving end of climate change. “We were not compensated for the loss even after the assessment.”

With the change in weather patterns, about 100 streams flowing across the villages could give rise to flash floods.

In the summer of 2021, a flash flood from a small water stream washed away about an acre of potato farm in Nimphey village.

Pema, 57, who lost a major part of his arable land, said that settlements and farmlands along the riverbanks are becoming increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events. “We are worried about heavy rainfalls and flash floods.”

A decade ago, a major flash flood from Tshelela washed away shops and farmlands along the riverbanks.

Gyem, 59, from Haal, said that the change in weather patterns has disturbed the water sources. “The water source that used to remain throughout the seasons now is available only during the monsoon.”

She also said that unlike in the past, the farmers in the village no longer grow wheat. “The wheat production has decreased drastically; we have stopped growing it. We are now having to import wheat.”

Lack of awareness of climate change among the villagers and emergency preparedness are among the main contributing factors that have increased the severity of the damage to farmlands in the villages.

Gangtey Gup Kinley Gyeltshen said that while villagers have witnessed changing weather patterns, they have limited or almost no knowledge of climate change. “People do not understand the value of the wetlands.”

Phobjikha and Gangtey gewogs grow potatoes on over 2,000 acres of land.

Impact on wetlands and cranes

Over the years, wetlands in Phobjikha have dried up substantially.

While uncontrolled human activities such as making drains through small marshlands around the villages are the main causes, climate change is identified as a major threat to wetlands ecosystems. The small marshland in the villages of Tangchey and Nimphey has completely disappeared.

If timely intervention is not taken, this could lead to a broad decline in wetland areas in Gangtey-Phobjikha.

The Royal Society for Protection of Nature’s (RSPN) national coordinator for black-necked crane conservation, Jigme Tshering, said that the change in weather patterns due to climate change could result in the gradual disappearance of wetlands.

“The soil will become harder and slowly the woody plants will grow which will dry up the wetland, which is already visible. This, ultimately, could lead to losing the habitats for the black-necked cranes,” he said.

As part of the conservation, he said that the RSPN would soon clear the shrubs grown on the wetland. “We can see the crane roosting ground is almost covered by thorny shrubs,” Jigme Tshering said.

Gangtey-Phobjikha has one of the largest high-altitude wetlands designated as a RAMSAR site and is the largest winter roosting grounds for the endangered black-necked cranes in the country.

It has 254 species of flora from 43 families, 90 species of birds, including the endangered black-necked crane and white-bellied heron, and 20 mammalian species, including the globally threatened red panda.

A case study from the Phobjikha valley conducted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in 2017 states that over 32 years, the area of forest in Gangtey-Phobjikha decreased by 2 percent and marshes by 7 percent.

This article is funded by Bhutan Media Foundation’s Climate Change Reporting Grant