Bhutan faces a typical dilemma today—that of insufficiency in the land of abundance.
The anecdotal narratives emerging from farming communities around the country are disturbing. They are the narratives of truth that cannot be ignored anymore, especially by policymakers and lawmakers.
A huge number of traditional water sources, which mainly include springs and streams, are either fast disappearing or are seeing a rapid decline in discharge volume. These mountain springs have fed Bhutanese for generations since they are the primary source of water for rural households in much of the Himalayan region.
Most traditional water sources in Bhutan are rain-fed streams or springs. These streams swell during the monsoon, providing water for paddy cultivation. A single stream could be a source of water for hundreds of households.
Policymakers can no longer turn a blind eye
Many official reports have noted the problem of drying water sources and farmers’ struggle with meeting the water demand for both domestic and agricultural purposes. These include reports by the National Environment Commission and field studies by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF), Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, and local governments, among others. Some recurring themes of these reports are drying up of traditional water sources, the impact of farm road construction on water resources, and the need for groundwater studies.
A recent assessment of 6,555 water sources by the agriculture ministry under Strategic Programme for Climate Resilience preparatory project found that about 35% of them (2,317) were in the process of drying, two percent (147) had completely dried up, and the rest remained the same.
The assessment covered 19 of the 20 dzongkhags of Bhutan. The northernmost district of Gasa was left out of the study because the region is already rich in water resources. Of the 19 dzongkhags, Samtse reported the highest number of drying and dried-up water sources, followed by Wangduephodrang and Trashigang dzongkhags. Haa, Trongsa, and Bumthang had the least number of water sources in the process of drying up.
“It was an initial assessment of water sources in the country to gauge the ground realities,” an official of MoAF said. “The spring-shed protocol was used to understand the groundwater conditions of the selected sites. It was the first step towards collecting empirical evidences so that informed decisions are made in the water sector.”
There have been reports of water sources drying up from Samtse to Tsirang to Mongar to Trashiyangtse. For example, Khamdang in Trashiyangtse district has always been a water-stressed gewog. Some 30 years ago, people of Khamdang scooped water from tiny springs with gourd ladles. Today, after numerous development activities, the area remains as distressed as it was in the past despite sourcing water from the Buyang watershed. And this will not be sustainable in the long run, officials say.
Is climate change the bad guy?
Studies have noted that changing rainfall patterns because of global warming could be contributing to the decline in the discharge volume of natural mountain springs. This is already impacting the agriculture sector, primarily affecting small-holding farmers.
To make the matter more complex for decision-makers, Bhutan lacks historical records of rainfall. There is no comparative data. And up until about a decade ago, hydrological data around the country was recorded manually, in some cases possibly compromising the accuracy of facts and figures.
Increasing variability and unpredictability of rainfall is posing new challenges to farmers. They say rainfall these days lasts for shorter period and people are now switching from the cultivation of more water intensive crops like paddy to less water intensive crops like potatoes, maize, millet, and seasonal vegetables. In some cases, farmers have altogether abandoned paddy cultivation.
In the Punakha study, for example, many respondents blamed the dwindling water availability in the rain-fed streams as one of the factors affecting their production. Some households had resorted to buying irrigation water from upstream villages, while households close to the Punakha river had started pumping river water into paddy fields.
Dire consequences ahead?
Spring shed is an emerging science in the region. Even in developed countries like the US that have extensive repository of scientific data, ground water science remains rather weak. Therefore, experts say the issue is much more complex than what meets the eye. For example, situation in each area is different ecologically.
“Springs and streams are very delicate ecosystem, sensitive to climate change and other anthropogenic activities,” said an official. “The key is not to harm the natural landscape, and understand that any activity, especially huge landscape development activities, is bound to have impact on water ecosystem.”
In Bhutan, the two big landscape development activities have been the construction of huge hydropower projects and the rampant construction of hundreds of farm roads. These roads cut through fragile slopes, gorges, and running water bodies, and have been built without mapping recharge areas. Experts say these roads could easily disturb the movement and distribution of groundwater.
The science-policy interface is weak in Bhutan. There are a dozen water-related policies and regulations in place. But the science remains weak. There is no enough catchment research, agencies work in silos, and the lack of sectoral collaboration and coordination has become a deep systemic issue.
While modest work has begun to address the issue, the country still lacks considerable expertise for a nationwide intervention. For example, work has begun at five pilot sites in four districts for spring revival and spring-shed management. In these pilot sites, officials have conducted hydro-geology mapping and set up monitoring systems. The work now will be to decide on the intervention and monitor the progress.
Farmers have to be made aware of small-scale efficient water management practices such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, plastic-lined conservation pond, and water recharge ponds. Rainwater harvesting could be piloted to see its sustainability. There have also been suggestions to explore groundwater potentials through bore wells in southern Bhutan.
The big need of the hour, officials say, is a centralised agency on the water resources management since the current institutional set up is weak with duplication of mandates among numerous agencies. There is also no centralised data repository on water resources and the implementation of water-related polices and regulations have been weak.
“Since every aspect our life hinges on water we need a premier and independent body in the field of water resources,” said an official. “With the duplication of mandates among various agencies, many urgent issues related to water are either willfully ignored or overlooked. That’s why we need an independent water body.
This story was funded by Bhutan Media Foundation under Climate Change Reporting Grant supported by Internews Earth Journalism Network.
One of the springs assessed in Trashigang
(Photo by Sonam Choden, MoAF)