Nabji village is a major rice producer in Bhutan's central district of Trongsa, but shortage of irrigation water presents significant threat. UNDP recently supported a government project that installed climate-resilient irrigation scheme in the village.

 

The World Water Day (WWD), observed on March 22nd every year, presents an opportunity for us to reflect on something that we often take for granted – water.

Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world. With an average flow of 2,238 cubic meters (m3) per second, Bhutan generates 70,572 million m3 per annum, which equates to no less than 94,500 m3 per person per year, and that is the highest in the region.

As a transient visitor to Bhutan, I am often reminded that water has always been an integral part of Bhutan’s tradition and people’s lives. Bhutanese people have shown the utmost respect for the Deities who protect watersheds, lakes and rivers in the kingdom.

However, the water we worship, cherish and rely upon is becoming scarce. While visiting rural areas, I have come across communities facing acute water shortages as water sources, including wetlands and lakes, are drying up. This problem is exacerbated in the dry season. Almost 99.5 per cent of Bhutan’s population has access to improved water sources, yet only 63 per cent has 24-hour access to drinking water. In water-rich Bhutan 32.9 per cent of people consider adequate water to be the primary concern. Recently, the Environment and Climate Change Committee of the Parliament, while deliberating climate action, recommended further research to determine why our springs and streams are dissipating.  

Women and children in parts of rural Bhutan find themselves walking long distances to fetch water as nearby sources dry up.

 

Recognizing that water and climate change are inextricably linked, this year’s theme of the WWD calls for climate policymakers to put water at the heart of action plans.

Amongst the 17 SDGs, the sixth goal on water and sanitation is said to be one of the most challenging and off-track goals globally. Despite some progress, today, 1 in 3 people – around 2.2 billion worldwide – live without safe drinking water. Most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030. By 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce for at least one month a year. This situation creates unprecedented competition for water, and it calls for much more efficient use and management of water to meet the growing demand.

Globally, extreme weather – expected to increase in frequency and intensity because of climate change – has caused more than 90 per cent of major disasters over the last decade. Bhutan is not an exception as it is highly vulnerable to climate change and its consequences, most of which are related to the water sector. The rising temperature induces glaciers to melt, which in turn causes glacial lakes to burst, flooding communities living downstream. This also magnifies the risks to hydropower dams constructed along many of our river systems. 

Bhutan has close to 300 0 glacial lakes of which 17 have been categorized as potentially dangerous during the recent reassessment of potentially dangerous glacial lakes by the National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology.

 

Future climate projection conducted by the Government shows that temperatures in Bhutan will continue to soar, particularly in northern parts of the country. So, we, the global community, must act quickly to reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, we have to adapt to the fast-changing environment.

Water stores carbon and therefore it can help mitigate climate change. Peatlands cover only three per cent of the world’s land surface but store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s forests. Wetlands soak up carbon dioxide from the air. Just as Bhutan has protected its rich forest as an essential carbon sink, we now need to protect and expand these types of environments.

As the only carbon negative nation with more than 70 per cent of its land under forest cover, Bhutan is already contributing more to global climate action than any other country. It has already been investing in clean energy and electric transportation. Water-efficient irrigation systems, rainwater harvesting, smart distribution systems, improved management and governance, and wastage reduction are critical and practical measures that can be used to mitigate the impact of climate change on water. For example, cities around the world are working hard to reduce water leakages as up to 50 per cent of water is lost due to failing infrastructure. 

UNDP supported a government project that helped replace traditional open irrigation channels like this with pressurized piped climate-resilient irrigation system in Tsirang, Haa and Trongsa.

 

With financial support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Royal Government of Bhutan and UNDP are developing the country’s first National Adaptation Plan, focusing on the water sector. We are looking at water availability for drinking, sanitation, energy and agriculture to identify appropriate adaptation options. UNDP is also working closely with the Government to enhance the resilience of smallholder farms in eight Dzongkhags. Farmers are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Yields are affected by variation in rainfall and crops are damaged or lost due to the frequent occurrence of extreme weather conditions. Climate-smart agriculture will help us meet the increasing food demand without depleting precious resources such as soil and water.

These are some humble contributions that UNDP is making in support of the ongoing and future efforts of the Government. Yet we cannot just look to the Government to solve our looming water crisis. Everyone has a role to play. From promoting zero-waste, reuse-recycle, switch off lights, buy and eat local produce, to taking a shorter shower, there are many surprisingly easy steps we can all take to slow down climate change and to conserve water in our daily lives (but not cutting short on handwashing for COVID 19 prevention!).

As we observe World Water Day, let us reflect on the footprint we leave on Mother Earth, how we affect our water resources, and how each one of us can contribute to the movement for climate action.

By Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative, UNDP Bhutan

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