Is Bhutan’s conservation development-oriented?

Contribution of the forestry sector to GDP is three percent

Choki Wangmo

Vision 2020:   Environment: As envisioned in the Vision 2020 document, Bhutan’s long term commitment to the maintenance of biological diversity is rooted in the understanding of the importance of forest systems. Bhutan has achieved major milestones and main policy instruments in the conservation of the environment.

But, implementation and adaptation remains a question in the face of changing global climate.

The vision states, “Our approach to environmental conservation will not be a static one. It will be given a dynamic and development-oriented interpretation in which natural resources are not only seen as something to be preserved but also as a development asset.”

Today, Bhutan’s total forest cover is 83.90 percent—70.77 percent trees and 13.13 percent shrubs. About 51 percent of the area is designated as national parks, nature reserves, and other protected areas.

However, according to forest analyst Phuntsho Namgyel (PhD), increased forest cover in the country has come at the cost of agricultural lands and grasslands. For instance, agricultural lands decreased from 9.26 percent in the 1970s to 2.75 percent in 2016. Similarly, meadows declined from 4.07 percent in 1995 to 2.51 percent today.

“These non-tree ecosystems are rich in biodiversity and support high densities of domestic animals and wildlife. These species loss and resulting habitat change remains a serious threat to our national food security and the ecological integrity,” Phuntsho Namgyel said.

Overstocked forests with suppressed, unhealthy and stressed trees are susceptible to pest, diseases, drought, and forest fires while disrupting groundwater supplies.

Currently, contribution of the forestry sector to GDP is three percent. In 1999, when the vision 2020 was launched, the forestry share of GDP was 6.6 percent.

According to statistics,  there is a timber reserve of 1,001 million m3 growing at an annual rate of 13.5 million m3. The total wood removed from the forest is maximum—0.5 million which is mere 3.7 percent of the sustainable harvest level.

Phuntsho Namgyel said that there was hardly any timber extraction happening in the country. “At the village and household level, forest resource is not an important economic activity generating any worthwhile cash income.”

“By increasing the harvesting level from current 0.39 million m3 to 5 million m3, the forest sector can annually generate revenue of Nu. 50 billion, which is comparatively more than the hydropower,” he added.

A recent World Bank report also noted that Bhutan’s forestry sector constitutes an important but underutilised sector of the economy, and if principles of sustainable forestry are applied fully, it could significantly increase forest productivity, improve ecological resilience and increase employment opportunities.

Vision 2020 further states that there is a need to display a higher degree of sensitivity to the maintenance of biodiversity. For instance, the nation’s commitment to pine trees have contributed to a reduction of biodiversity—pine forest has taken over alpine meadowlands leading to loss of plants, birds, and insects that formed part of the ecosystem.

The National Forest Inventory report 2018 recorded three percent (98,563 ha) of chirpine forest and four percent (137,230 ha) of blue pine forest in the country.

Further to that, the environment is under threat from population pressures, agricultural modernisation, hydropower and mineral development, industrialisation, urbanisation, sewage and waste disposal, competition for arable land and road construction among others.

Meanwhile, stern conservation rules have garnered Bhutan the greatest biodiversity-rich country in Asia, and were declared one of the world’s 10 most important biodiversity ‘hotspots’.

Bhutan has received international acclaim for carbon-neutral status and maintenance of the biodiversity as reflected in the decision to maintain at least 60 percent of the land under forest cover.

The vision document recognised improved water and air quality standards comprehensively.

Documents related to the issues were developed and is in place since 2008. But, according to annual reports, there were some loopholes in distribution.

As of 2018, the annual drinking water quality report found that while drinking water in Thimphu thromde was 92 percent safe, the other dzongkhags did not achieve the safety levels. The facilities were unequally distributed.

For instance, out of 34 urban reporting centres, only six health centres—Bajo, Bumthang, Gelephu, Phuntsholing, Samtse and Thimphu monitored chlorine drinking water because there were no treatment facilities in other urban areas.

Out of 2,436 samples collected and tested for E. coli in urban areas, only 56 percent of urban drinking water was found to be safe according to the report, while the rest were found to be unsafe. “The drinking water quality from some sampling points were found consistently polluted,” the report stated.

According to Chief laboratory officer with Royal Centre for Disease Control, ChimiDorji, with changing climate and rapid urbanisation, water quality is affected and contamination was inevitable during monsoon.

He also said that rural areas faced problems due to lack of specialists.

Out of 5,962 samples tested for E.coli, about 66 percent were found to be safe for consumption in rural areas. About 33 percent was unsafe, 28 percent fell within the low heath risk category, four percent into the intermediate too high health risk category and about 0.27 percent was grossly polluted.

Similarly, greenhouse gas emission from the transport sector was 1.56 million tons of CO2 in 2002. Transportation sector accounts for 45 percent of all energy related emissions and seven percent of total national GHG emissions. Today, the number has increased fivefold.

If no actions are taken to curb the emission, it could triple by 2030, according to the Asian Development Bank.

The average vehicle ownership growth rate is 15 percent annually in the country. As of November 30 last year, Road Safety and Transport Authority recorded 10, 6154 vehicles in the country.

Due to vehicular emission, increased amount of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the atmosphere is a public health concern in urban areas.

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