Residents along Phochhu were rudely reminded of the stark reality of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) on October 30 evening. They were informed that the much-feared Thothormi Lake, one of the four lakes that feeds Phochhu, had burst. The social media groups went abuzz as residents and officials tried to inform each other and encourage caution.

Most natives recalled the trail of massive devastation left along the valley by the disastrous October 1994 flood. A partial outburst of Lugge Tsho, a glacial lake in the Lunana, released around 18 million cubic metres of water into Phochhu. It claimed 20 lives, destroyed pasture and fertile agricultural land, and partially destroyed the Punakha Dzong.

Fortunately, the recent outburst was a minor one. Yet we cannot be sure. Officials are at the site assessing the lake’s condition and trying to determine the cause of the outburst.

Bhutan has 17 potentially dangerous lakes and 11 are in Punatsangchhu river basin.

We cannot eliminate the risks of GLOFs. We cannot do that simply because the causal factors are way beyond our control. Enduring the destruction of our national infrastructure and private properties, and through the loss of lives of our dear ones, we pay for the greed and misplaced priorities of more intelligent race worlds away.

Any major disturbance on Thorthormi Lake or any of the three lakes, one bigger than the other, could result in a GLOF, potentially with a huge cost to life, property and infrastructure.

The settlements along the valley increase every year. Residents change. The once-in-year GLOF drills will not be enough to make them understand the threats and familiarise them with the evacuation protocols and routes. Worse, our experience has shown that residents along the river move closer to watch the spectacle oblivious to the imminent dangers.

Continuous monitoring of glacial lakes in the Lunana region and throughout Bhutan is an imperative that cannot be overstated. We must be ever-vigilant, ever-ready to detect the slightest tremor, the subtlest signs of impending catastrophe. It is time to invest in state-of-the-art early-warning systems, and ensure that every citizen is alerted when danger approaches. But we can’t do all of it on our own.

A small delegation will present the grave threats that citizens of a small kingdom strapped for resources  are facing at COP28 in Dubai. We have been calling for more investment and action to address climate change. The October 28 outburst is a resounding warning.

Our only worry is: Will the esteemed diplomats at the conference be reasonable to listen to the Bhutan story? Time is of the essence, and every delay carries with it the weight of potential tragedy.