The power of climate change: how prepared are we?

GLOF is a threat that is increasingly becoming dangerous to a country like Bhutan. There are naysayers in some quarters of our society who would like us to believe their every word as if we know naught what truth is and not. Climate change is real and, if we do not bolster our early warning systems and preparedness, consequences could be dire.

When Lemethang Tsho burst on June 28, we got the real picture of our preparedness. Telephone lines were jammed. Nervous officials, including the Prime Minister, scrambled for ways to connect to the people of the highlands and to get correct information from the field staff up in the mountains. This was a small but a very significant incident. Floods bigger than this have occurred in the past that caused serious damage to the communities living along the banks of major river systems of the country.

Ice on the mountains is melting fast. Where not so long ago was a lush meadow where highlanders used to collect incense plants and flowers is a looming lake today. Supraglacial lakes are becoming bigger by the day, threatening to break the thin and fast weathering moraine lines. A burst from one of the major lakes high up could have devastating impact downstream.

Bhutan sits on geologically young and fragile mountain ecosystem that is highly susceptible to geological and hydro-meteorological hazards. Shrinking of the glaciers and expansion of glacial lakes have caused repeated glacial lake outburst since the 1960s. And, we have not forgotten the GLOF that occurred in the Punatsangchhu basin that killed 21 people and caused extensive damage to property along the Punakha-Wangdue valley.

What we must understand is that we are now facing a new threat altogether. Scientists have predicted that the next GLOF from the major lakes high in the north of the country could be five times more powerful and disastrous than the 1994 flood. We have no means yet to determine how much damage it will do to our new and growing urban centres, hydropower plants, roads, airports and other social infrastructures.

We must applaud the government and our development partners who helped us install GLOF and Rainstorm Early Warning System along the major river systems in the country. We also have National Weather and Flood Warning Centre that will help Department of Hydro-Met Services (DHMS) procure real time Hydro-meteorological and hazard warnings. But set-up is good only if we can make good use of it.

The problem we face today is resource constraints. Give DHMS priority and resources it needs to function to the best of its capacity and we will have inched some way ahead in dealing with the most imminent threat we face today.

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