Villagers in Phongmey blame tree felling and overgrazing by ‘outsiders’ for their perennial plight

Disaster: For years, people on the foothills of Karmagonpa and Gazarey in Phongmey gewog have been bearing the wrath of repeated landslides and floods.

They claim it is because of felling of trees by Radhipas and overgrazing of cattle by the highlanders of Chebling in Merak.

More than 100 households of Karmagonpa and Gazarey lie between two rivers, the Dungjuri and the Yudiri.  During the summer, rainwater easily runs from the higher areas and flows into the two rivers, causing floods and landslides.

Water from drains along the farm road coming down from Chebling also poses a risk to the lhakhang at Karmagonpa, with land near it already sinking.  Because of the landslides, Lem tshogpa, Norbu Gyeltshen, said that a few villagers have already moved from Karmagonpa.

“About seven households of Karmagonpa had to leave. A lot of our wetlands and dry lands near Dunjuri have been affected as well. Villagers are at risk, ” he said.

Now, Chebling herders, who are replacing the roofs of their temporary shelters with CGI sheets, have the communities of Phongmey worried that things could take a turn for the worse.

“When it rains, the water from the roofs is only going to run with more force from the roofs on to the ground that will only cause more landslides,” Tshering Gyeltshen, a villager of Karmagonpa, said. “Unlike normal rainwater, the ground won’t be able to absorb water coming off the roofs.”

There are about 70 houses in Chebling.

Tshering said the landslides are getting closer to the settlements, and have already caused cracks on their lands.

“More than two decades back, our forests were well preserved and landslides were never an issue,” he said. “People of Radhi and Chebling started cutting down trees and landslides started happening.”

To prevent landslides, villagers of Lem chiwog have started constructing a three kilometre concrete drain at the edge of Chebling to divert the water flowing from the highlands to Yudiri.  This will channel away the water of the Kamrong, a small water source, which overflows during summer and causes the landslides.

“The flooding of Yudiri that washed away the bridge in 2004 is also said to be caused because of Kamrong overflowing,” Rinchen Dawa, a villager from Gazarey, said.

On the other hand, a Chebling herder, Tshering Wangdi, said the felling of trees couldn’t be blamed on them.  He said that it was not possible for them to cut down trees because it fell below their villages.

“Should we need wood, we’d go to higher grounds because it would be easier for us to transport downhill rather than climb up. In fact, we’ve planted a lot of trees to prevent landslides,” he said.

The CGI roofing, he said, was funded by the UNDP/GEF small grant programme, and the move was to prevent further felling of trees.

“CGI roofing would last for almost a decade compared to the wooden roofing that lasts for about two years. We need not cut down trees for the roofs again and again,” he said.

By Tshering Wangdi,  Trashigang