As traditional sources dry up, farmers fear a future with insufficient water

The gewog of Barshong in Tsirang is a sprawling communities of human settlements along narrow ridges and steep slopes of the southern foothills. The gewog’s population of about 2,500 people are perennially thirsty, literally and figuratively. Simply said, the gewog faces acute water shortage. By contrast, the grand Sunkosh River flows at the foot of the Barshong hills.

The river is a constant reminder to the residents of Barshong why mankind’s survival so critically hinges on the continuous availability of water. Besides the considerable dry spell the gewog goes through, there are new water-related challenges that farmers have to deal with.

Across the Sunkosh River is Dagana, another district where several of its gewogs have of late reported severe water shortage. Dagaps say the traditional water sources have dried up leaving communities to identify new ones, often far away from human settlements.

Up in the mountain valleys, in Wangduephodrang, people complain of dwindling amount of water for paddy cultivation. People have resorted to stealing water, if not buying from neighbors who do not need it in abundance. In Shaba, Paro, officials say four of the five springs have dried up in the past two decades.

For hundreds of households in Toeb and Baap gewogs in Punakha, the ever-dependable stream of Toeb-Rongchu is like a mother whose bountiful love is unconditional. But the naturally-fed stream, farmers say, is seeing a decrease in discharge over several years. The stream is now increasingly becoming a source of conflict among households and communities.

Bhutan’s farmers, who have for generations depended on subsistence farming, know it all—that rainfall is becoming erratic and unpredictable, that natural ponds and lakes are drying up, that spring and stream discharge is decreasing. In short, farming is becoming difficult. And more and more farmers, from Dagana to Paro to Pemagatshel, are today worried about future without sufficient water.

“In the past, rains lasted for several months,” says Raj Kumar Moktan, 56, of Gangtokha in Barshong. “We received rain from April till August. But today, you never know when it comes and when it goes. It has become extremely unpredictable.”

Are water sources really drying up?

There are increasing reports from communities across the country that water sources are drying up. In many parts of Bhutan, farmers share the same distressing stories, that water availability has become highly seasonal.

Increasing variability and unpredictability of rainfall is already posing new challenges to farmers. They say rainfall these days lasts for shorter period and people are now switching from the cultivation of more water intensive crops like paddy to less water intensive crops. In some cases, farmers have altogether abandoned paddy cultivation.

“Paddy cultivation does not make sense anymore,” says a Samtse farmer. “First, there is water shortage, and then there is the shortage of farmhands. Young people do not want to do the dirty work.”

Farmers also complain of increased pest and diseases and crop failure, especially during extended dry spells. Water scarcity will have a direct impact on food security as more farmers hang up their plough to explore alternative livelihood or simply abandon villages for urban lure.

Yet, Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world. Official figures show that Bhutan generates about 70,500 million m3 per annum, meaning each Bhutanese should ideally have access to about 94,500 m3 per person per year.

Experts say poor governance and management are some underlying causes for water shortage in the country. Disturbances at the catchment, change in land use pattern, forest fires, disturbance of natural vegetation, and climate change could be contributing to the dwindling water availability.

Further, rainfall patterns have changed from long monsoon cycles to erratic downpours and this is not giving enough rain to recharge to the aquifers, which are a critical component of watersheds.

The numerous farm roads constructed in the past 15 years would have also disturbed the movement and distribution of groundwater, say officials. Many rural roads in Bhutan have been built without mapping recharge areas.


What can be done?

While modest work has begun to address the issue, the country still lacks considerable expertise for a nationwide intervention. For example, work has begun at the pilot site in Lholing in Paro for spring revival and spring-shed management. Some capacity building exercises for officials and local leaders have also been carried out. And one of the components of the national flagship program on ‘Water and Irrigation’ is to protect critical watersheds and wetlands.

Rehabilitating degraded sources should be at the core of the spring revival interventions, say experts. To this end, a team of Bhutanese officials also visited Sikkim to learn from its popular Dhara Vikas Initiative. Under this Initiative, Sikkim has been able to revive several dying lakes, springs, and streams. Given geographical similarities between Bhutan and Sikkim, officials feel lessons from Sikkim could be useful.

The big challenge, however, is the lack of comprehensive data.  Further, most farmers are not aware of small-scale efficient water management practices such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, plastic-lined conservation pond, and water recharge ponds.

Barshong has been lucky, though. Through an European Union-funded project on rural livelihoods managed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, several households in Barshong geowg have constructed plastic-lined conservation ponds. These ponds store as much as 18,000 liters of water, and can be used for irrigation as well as for vegetable production. The water can also be used for fish farming and other domestic purposes.

However, better management of springs and deepening community ownership of water sources should be focus in the long run, experts say. Better distribution systems with minimal wastage should be introduced. Environmental impact assessments should reflect recharge areas and mark them as protected zones. Development activities, especially the ones that cause considerable damage to the environment, could be discouraged.

In the meanwhile, for the people of Toeb and Baap, the end of each cycle of paddy cultivation is a moment of jubilation. The deities have answered the prayers, and people will not go hungry. The ever-dependable Toeb-Rongchu has not yet failed.

Or could it, someday?

Contributed by  Gopilal Acharya

This story was funded by Bhutan Media Foundation under Climate Change Reporting Grant supported by Internews Earth Journalism Network.