Resource Management in Bhutan

A view of Thimphu, Bhutan from above

A view of Thimphu, Bhutan from above

I recently visited Bhutan with a Senior Researcher from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to discuss our current project (a study on the benefit of sustainable land management practices in Bhutan) with policy makers and technical experts. Bhutan as an example of a country grappling with the question of how to develop services for its people while conserving its natural ecosystem. While the Bhutanese have a history of conserving their natural resources – the foremost of which being their many forests – it’s simply not possible for a country to improve the livelihoods of its people without developing its natural resources. As the Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests told us during our visit with him, you cannot tell a farmer to preserve the forest if it means his children go hungry.

And so Bhutan is developing. But the country is looking to do so in an informed manner that preserves its natural resources. Bhutan has developed an admirable focus on research-based policy, and it contains more than its share of world-class experts focusing on some flavor of natural resource development. Admittedly, there are economic incentives as well.

The two largest contributors to Bhutan’s GDP – Hydroelectric power generation and tourism – derive from its natural resources. Hydroelectric power exports to India are the largest contributor to Bhutan’s GDP annually, and the country is looking to further supplement its four existing plants with seven planned projects as part of an agreement with India to produce 10,000 MW by 2020. The incentive to predict any degradation in quantity or quality of water flowing into these hydroelectric plants is pretty clear. Sedimentation driven by a changing climate and by clearing of land for infrastructure was a recurring concern in our conversations with technical experts.

Climate change in Bhutan is affecting the quantity of water available by reducing storage in the glaciers to the North and by altering the pattern of rainfall across the country (at least as measured by available satellite and reanalysis data). In fact, while visiting a center for research on renewable natural resources one expert on use of water in agriculture told us that the changing patterns of rainfall have made previously viable, productive lands unreliable for farming.

Meanwhile, anthropogenic changes in Bhutan have primarily affected the land cover and therefore the sediment loading in rivers. Over the last five years, following a political promise by the then majority party, Bhutan has constructed a tremendous number of farm roads. These roads are unpaved and are often improperly constructed in regards to drainage and slope. The Chief Officer of the HydroMet and the head of the Druk Green Power Corporation (responsible for operation of the hydroelectric plants) both described the deleterious effects that erosion from these roads has on river water quality.

The tools required to understand the changing Bhutanese ecosystem are available, but their implementation is not trivial. While the government of Bhutan has invested in a framework of hydrologic models, including VIC coupled to DHSVM and SWAT, conflict between departments and a prolonged calibration process has prevented the models from becoming operational. Many of the professionals we spoke with in Bhutan have an interest in learning how to model their watershed and are technically proficient but lack access to the specific expertise that is required for learning new and often complex hydrologic models.

After only a week meeting with technical professionals and policy makers I’m left with the impression that Bhutan is a country whose policy toward resource development and intellectual potential is one step ahead of its infrastructure. My experience in Bhutan has reminded me of both the promise and the challenge of using hydrologic models and in-depth research as an underpinning for development policy. The process of developing that policy is not as straight forward as interpreting the output from a series of models.

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