Annual environmental officers’ conference on July 4 discussed issues of classification of water abstraction from riverbanks, restriction of activities within the buffer zone, and dzongkhag receiving water disputes without gewog resolution.

These were raised as challenges of provisions in the water act of Bhutan 2011, which required clarification for better implementation of the act and regulation.

Environmental officers from 20 dzongkhags and four thromdes and officials from National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) are attending the four-day conference, which began on July 3.

Tsirang’s senior environmental officer, Dorji Wangdi, said that a uniform understanding of the Act would help the environmental officers in better implementation of the Act.

He added that the water abstraction from the riverbanks should be classified under surface water abstraction and not underground water abstraction, which has a different environmental assessment (EA) processes. “Water abstraction from the riverbanks doesn’t require drilling into the aquifers and can extract water within four to five meters from the river.”

It was reiterated in the meeting that the discussion was with the understanding that underground water abstraction was the last resort to extract water for various purposes.

Officials from NECS suggested setting criteria including the number of beneficiaries, defining riverbank to avoid misuse of the meaning, and serving the purpose of drinking and irrigation as a first priority. This, however, will be discussed further.

While defining buffer zone as area within 100 feet or 30 metres from any water body, Dorji Wangdi said that there was a need to make EA compulsory for the all the activities within the buffer zone.

He said that this should be made compulsory for the environmental clearance (EC) exempted activities such as hoisting of prayer flags on the buffer zone. “When we say EA process, this doesn’t necessarily mean issuance of EC. We should at least do some screening and find out what is coming up on the buffer zone. If we have a common understanding then it will help in addressing issues regarding uniform implementation of the acts.”

While the rural construction rule 2013 restricts construction of houses within the buffer zone, it was recommended that the relevant officials be notified on restriction of activities on the buffer zone including the exempted lists.

Water disputes coming to the dzongkhags without a resolution from the gewogs were also raised.

The conference will end today.

Phurpa Lhamo