Land: Bhutan loses about 3.34 tonnes of topsoil per hectare annually.

The soil loss increases eightfold to 24.61 tonnes a hectare in areas where sustainable land management techniques are not implemented. This is about three truckloads of soil being removed and dumped downstream every year.

Even with sustainable land management techniques Bhutan loses at least 12 million tonnes of topsoil each year.

This is a big issue for the country given that more than 65 percent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood.

Of the 12 percent of the population living in poverty, National Statistics Bureau reports show more than 16 percent is in rural areas.

Considering the topography of the country, issues related to soil, land, and watershed have been increasing every year, said agriculture officials.

More than half a dozen households from Tshogonpa in Womrong, Trashigang had to be relocated as their farmlands eroded massively putting their lives in danger.

Land degradation occurs on both agriculture and forests, affecting livelihoods and the functions of the ecosystem.

The country has a total arable land of less than eight percent, of which only about 2.93 percent is cultivated today.

“Land is so important and yet it is most often taken for granted,” agriculture director general Nim Dorji said.

It is estimated that South Asia loses 36 million tonnes of cereals a year from loss of soil fertility caused mainly by loss of topsoil, agriculture officials said. This could result in bigger problems of food and nutrition insecurity, adverse impacts on ecosystem services and increase the effects of climate change.

One of the main factors for loss of land productivity in Bhutan is the loss of fertile topsoil through erosion as a result of farming activities.

Among the land degradation types, degradation caused by water like gullies, landslides and ravine formation are more prominent and devastating.

Wind and cultivation erosion are also extensive as is in-situ degradation such as depletion of soil organic matter, nutrient mining, topsoil capping and subsoil compaction.

“All these contribute to reducing agricultural productivity and impairing the livelihoods of the people,” National Soil Service Centre (NSSC) official, Tshering Dorji said.

Cultivation erosion is moderately severe and is extensive in kamzhing (dryland), especially on steep slopes. Due to repeated cultivation and tillage practices, the topsoil is being slowly moved down the slope, exposing the subsoil at the upper parts of the field.

In many parts of the country, farmers cultivate on slopes up to 38 degrees.

NSSC officials said land degradation also causes loss in hydropower revenue.

“There is a huge cost implication in maintenance of turbines and loss in generation as machines have to be shut down for maintenance,” said Phuntsho Gyeltshen, NSSC’s senior soil survey and land evaluation officer.

Multiple cropping is encouraged to reduce loss of topsoil and numerous technologies such as stone bunds in the fields, planting fodder trees and terracing, among others.

Watershed management division (WMD) implements measures to minimise land degradation. It has implemented three payment schemes for environment services programmes in Paro, Mongar, and Chukha for drinking water services.

The upstream communities in such schemes carry out plantation and other activities to protect the water sources and land from degrading. In return, those who use the water pay for the services.

The REED+ programme implemented by the division also works to reduce deforestation and forest degradation and improve management of forests.

“It was designed to generate additional investment for sustainable management of forest resources and securing environmental services” said Sigyel Dema, WMD’s deputy chief forest officer.

The first national land management campaign was initiated in eastern Bhutan in 2005 with the twin objectives of reducing land degradation and restoring degraded land.

Tshering Palden