Thirty-two farmers from five villages in Punakha are in court for a crime that stemmed out of a water shortage problem. They could most likely get a minimum of one year in prison for damaging reservoir tanks and pipes of the other village. There is no denying what they did was wrong.
But communities resorting to take the law into their own hands has become a trend and it is breaking the strong ancestral cords of communal bonds, and disturbing the peace and harmony of our communities.
In 2012, Narang villagers cut the pipes of two villages of Drametse who tapped into their water source despite being denied community clearance to do so. The case went to court. A similar incident happened between the neighbouring villages of Barshong and Chaskhar in Sarpang two years later.
Such disputes arise as communities decline to share their sources as water supply is inadequate for their own consumption, be it paddy transplantation or drinking.
Until recently irrigation development was the result of the farmers’ initiatives and investments in the construction and management of traditional community-managed irrigation systems, using local resources and knowledge. Of about 2,000 systems in the country today, only half are functional.
There are strict customary practices in most rice-growing areas like Paro, Wangdue, and Punakha, with those closer to the water source cultivativating first.
Despite Bhutan being rich in water resources, availability is limited and scientists fear climate change will only worsen the problem.
There is already growing concern on water availability for drinking and for agriculture as many spring water sources are drying up, and there is minimal flow in winter for hydropower generation. This is compelling communities to disregard long-standing communal customs and not share their sources despite natural resources being national assets.
We must implement the long-awaited National Irrigation Master Plan urgently. ADB research shows that of 403,000 acres, the country has only 277,000 acres under cultivation. The potential is huge and present rice self-sufficiency could be boosted way beyond the current 50 percent rate.
The government must seek alternative water solutions such as building reservoirs, bore wells and harvest rainwater. The government must also further prioritise repair and construction of irrigation channels, and create more Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes.
The four PES groups established until now have benefited both service providers, villagers protecting sources, and water users downstream. This scheme is most fitting for those living on the outskirts of bigger cities which face drinking water shortages.
We must also create awareness about the legislations on water such as the Water Act 2011 and its regulations to help communities address disputes formally and legally.
If meeting such investments require sacrificing expensive vehicles for civil servants, lavish chadris for visits by ministers and their frequent helicopter rides, which are now becoming more frequent, so be it.