The contentious issue of natural resources

Yearender/Environment: The mining sector was in the news for all the wrong reasons last year.

Conflicts between mine operators and communities erupted mostly in Thimphu.  Villagers, becoming aware of the adverse impacts, started complaining about the problems from the mines on their livelihoods.  It resulted in the temporary shutdown of one mine in Khariphu.  Currenlty, five mines, including the Khariphu one, are fighting cases at the Thimphu district court.

The small community of Khariphu contested the license renewal of a mine that operates above their village.  The ensuing deadlock between the proprietor and some 19 villagers shut down the mine for two months.  Following an investigation, led by the economic affairs minister, the mine’s license was approved.

The villagers have filed a suit against the mine in the Thimphu district court.

In another case, community members of Gidawom took to court the four mines operating near their village.  Negotiations have failed twice.  The judgment on both the cases are awaited and will set a precedent for other similar cases in the country.

The Royal Audit Authority’s November report on the mining sector exposed long-running illegal activities in the mining companies across the country.  The National Council deliberated on the issue at length, and lambasted the government agencies for failing to fulfill their mandates, and sought accountability.

The geology and mines department issued guidelines to local governments and asked for strict enforcement.  But the short-staffed department, that has both monitoring and evaluation responsibilities, will still find it a challenge unless they have enough people.

While the government said the state mining corporation, now under the Druk Holding and Investments, would bring in advanced technology and knowledge to the mining sector, private miners felt it could spell the ultimate demise of their business.

Water

Various water disputes in the country, especially those over traditional rights, are likely to be settled, with water regulations now in place.

The 18-month integrated water resource management and river basin project, funded by the Asian Development Bank, is developing a management plan for the Wangchu river basin, the first one in the country.  The National Enviroment Commission secretariat (NECS) will replicate it in the other three river basins.  The project will give the country substantial resources, besides the water inventory, to implement the water Act.

Waste

The year saw some steady efforts to curb the waste problem, especially in the capital, the home to some 15 percent of the Bhutanese population.

Waste collection was privatised and contracted to Greener Way, plans to expand the Memelakha landfill that has developed leachate problems were approved, and the launch of the three-year Clean Bhutan and Green Thimphu projects started in February.

The thromde too deserves credit for keeping the streets clean with its 173 workers and annual budget of Nu 11M for waste management.

Finally outsourcing waste collection, Greener Way was given 13 waste collection trucks to gather waste from the southern and central parts of the city, beginning January this year.  Thimphu thromde also proposed collection of fees from households, offices and business units for waste collection.

The waste segregation from households has been implemented with expectations that this would reduce waste deposits at Memelakha.  The landfill expansion works have begun and the leachate leakage will be controlled, minimising damage to the environment.

Illegal waste dumpers are up for strict penalties, and the NECS has declared that it would pay half the penalty of the offender to the informant as part of an effort to increase vigilance.

Waste management at the districts has been implemented through various memoranda of understanding the secretariat signed with the authorities.

The commission also gave a strong ultimatum to the Pasakha and Balujhora industries to either clean up by March this year, or close down until it is done.  This measure will help reduce pollution levels found exceeding national standards.

Climate change was on the table too.  Several projects were launched to set up hydro-met service stations, hazard zonation of GLOF in Chamkhar and Trongsa river basins, and rural livelihood adaptation to climate change.

Forests

The timely suspension of the community forest (CF) formation, and the review of its establishment and implementation process fixed some major loopholes in the system.  Otherwise, it could have resulted in loss of forest resources, and the long-term success of the programme could have been compromised.

After a yearlong suspension, CF formation resumed in September 2014, and forest officials at the local governments were given more monitoring and assisting responsibilities for successful implementation.  This limits the scope of misuse by executive members.

Forest fire incidents have decreased in number, but continue to threaten the country’s biodiversity.

While timber demand has been soaring, with many new constructions and reconstructions of temples and homes, the completion of the national forest inventory at the end of this year will tell us just how much of this resource we have left.

Tshering Palden

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