Tackling conflicts over drying water sources

Although abundant in supply, lack of accessibility and storage were the main problems causing water disputes

Irrigation: If the people of Phangyul and Kashi gewogs in Wangdue were willing to reach a consensus, the government would once again fund the construction of the 34km irrigation channel from Baychu to Phangyul.

This was what Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay told them, when the much disputed issue was raised during the recent mid-term review.

The dispute goes back to five years when Phangyul, the gewog with scarce irrigation water faced an acute water shortage almost a decade ago.

The gewog’s water sources according to the village elderly are drying out. With no new water sources found in the gewog, they had to channel water from Kashi gewog. Then, the people of Kashi did not give their clearance. Later the two gewogs came to understanding and drew up an agreement to construct an irrigation channel. However, the people of Goenkha chiwog, who would be affected with the construction, had appealed to the Gyalpoi Zimpon’s office.

Phangyul’s gewog administration officer, Gyem Dorji said the only source was La-chu, which today supplies irrigation water to about 30-40 households of the 190 households. In Phangyul, almost half of the paddy fields have been fallow due to water shortage.

Research officer with RNRRC, Thinley Gyamtsho said that from stealing water at night to diverting water pipes, disputes regarding water could be and has always been volatile and rough. There were cases, where people of Ometeykha in Punakha and Matalongchu in Wangdue had to fight several court cases over water sources. But the shortage of water is yet to be addressed.

In most cases, not having enough water or drying of existing water sources becomes the cause to such problem, said officials.

Punakha’s chief agriculture officer Tashi Wangdi said when the existing water sources for irrigation shrink or dry out, problems will occur in sharing water. People will have to wait longer for their turns since most communities have a water sharing system called chhu kor. 

However, officials also said that water disputes could occur even if there is adequate water, especially when those using a particular source for generations tend to take ownership over it, mainly due to lack of awareness on the existing water Act and its rules and regulations.

Tashi Wangdi cited an example in Punakha where a water source identified for the proposed Yebisa-Bali irrigation channel is Dungkar Rongchhu, which falls in Kabjisa gewog.

Although there are users at the moment, there is excess water, which flows down without anyone using it, he said. “But the existing users and the gewog administration do not want to share it saying that the source may shrink or dry up in future due to climate change,” he said.

Wangdue’s agriculture officer, Sonam Zangpo said they come across many water disputes and most are due to vested interests. “Phanyul could be one such case,” he said.

Despite adequate river water and rainfall, researchers and agriculture officials said it is high time to look for alternatives like pump irrigation, water reservoir dam or tank construction in places where feasible and economic.

Bhutan has 19,000 cubic meter of water per person annually but accessibility and lack of storage is the main problem, former water resources specialist with the National Environment Commission, Gongsar Karma Chhopel said.

Although no study has been conducted on drying of water sources, the issue has been reported from across the country. He said when they visited all the districts to implement the water Act farmers expressed concerns of their existing water sources drying.

In most cases, change in climatic condition and rainfall patterns were blamed for the drying out of water sources. Agriculture officials said water sources usually dry up due to excessive use upstream, cutting down trees and over grazing. But these days, the problem occurs even if there is no or little disturbance upstream.

Meanwhile, Phangyul’s water problem was also raised at the recent dzongkhag tshogdu, where Kashi gup Sigay Dorji said they would issue public clearance as per the initial agreement, which states that Phanyul gewog and the people benefitting from the channel would bear the maintenance cost for five years.

Dawa Gyelmo, Wangdue

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