Climate Change and Water Stress in Highland Villages of Bhutan

Little Kinley Wangmo wants to be a schoolteacher when she grows up and teach at Phunshum school near her village. But all of her friends in the village of Phangyuel want to become doctors or civil servants and leave the village and work in the nearest towns of Wangdue or Punakha or in the capital Thimphu as others in the village have been doing recently. Her village Phangyuel in Bhutan has been facing a major water scarcity in the recent years, caused by unpredictable rainfall patterns and reducing snow cover caused due to climate change.

Kinley Wangmo (Far right) and her friends.

Grandmother Gyem who just turned 80 years this year recalls that her father used to farm in the fallow land that children now use as a playground. She also laments the unbearable increase in temperatures and worries that if the water scarcity continues, the villagers may struggle to cultivate enough rice to feed themselves. She is very worried that if the situation continues everyone in the village may have to migrate from the village they have inhabited for generations. Phangyul village head is also very concerned that due to water stress they may not be able to  grow any paddy this year. He recalled that last year farmers in Phangyul had to bring water up in tankers to save their crops from being lost. Many households have already left the village for nearby cities in search of work and to sustain themselves.

Grandmother Gyem

Elsewhere in Lholing village in the Paro valley, the situation is even worse. Due to persistent water shortage, the villagers have not been able to cultivate anything regularly in their very fertile lands now for several years. Almost all the perennial springs that have supported life in village has now dried up and the only one remaining is reduced to a trickle. Animals are also struggling to cope with the situation and reportedly many have perished. Almost every household in the village is now deserted and people have now moved out to low-lands and try to cultivate paddy and crops on leased lands often on leased lands and under unfavourable conditions. Dorji Gyeltshen a local leader whose family have lived in Lholing for 5 generations now fears that his children may never be able to return and live in the village.

Dorji Gyeltshen and wife


The irony is that Bhutan has a per capita water availability of 109,000 m3/year which is the highest among countries in the region. However the water resources are not distributed evenly across the country and climate change is increasing the water stress particularly for highland villages. While Phangyuel and Lholing have faced water scarcity, there have been flooding and landslides in other parts of Bhutan. Of late frequency and the intensity of droughts and floods have also increased due to climate change.

During the 16thand 17thcenturies when pilgrims and travellers transited through Bhutan they used to marvel at the irrigation systems and water engineering capabilities. Those irrigation and engineering capabilities meant that Bhutanease agriculture flourished and there were no water shortages. Many such engineering and irrigation practices have now been lost or not able to adapt to the severe reduction in water availability due to climate change.

Thankfully, there are efforts to find solutions to water scarcity problems in Phangyuel and Lholing. A plan for a channel to carry water to Phangyel from a reservoir over 30 km away has been drawn up and engineering specifications have been developed. It is hoped that this water supply infrastructure can be realised through financing from the Royal Government of Bhutan and possibly international assistance. Similarly at Lholing village, trenches have been dug at upper catchments to harvest monsoon rains to recharge aquifers and revive the springs that have provided the village for generations. These initiatives would need support from government or from international donors where there are funding gaps. Hopefully these initiatives will materialise and will alleviate the water scarcity in both Lholing and Phangyul. I do hope that the springs and Lholing will be revived and Dorji Gyeltshen can return to the land of his ancestors and revive agriculture the lands that lie fallow and that Grandma Gyem can continue to stay on in Phangyul where her ancestors lived and grandchildren were born. I also hope that little Kinley can stay on and grow up in Phangyul and become the school teacher she wants to be.