Making groundwater visible in Bhutan

UNDP Bhutan
4 min readMar 22, 2022

The National Environment Commission Secretariat and partner agencies begin efforts to assess the country’s groundwater reserves as part of a climate adaptation project funded by the Green Climate Fund and supported by UNDP.

A woman fetching water from a pond. Photo: UNDP Bhutan

Led by the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) in partnership with UNDP, a taskforce for groundwater resources assessment comprising members from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Engineering Services, Department of Forests and Park Services, Department of Geology and Mines, National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology, Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research, and College of Natural Resources has been established.

The sites for the project titled, “Comprehensive assessment of water resources targeting both the quality and quantity aspects of water” are in Samdrup Jongkhar and Sarpang. The two Dzongkhags were identified based on the priorities of the Water Flagship Program that seeks to ensure uninterrupted access to water for drinking and agriculture for all, and to protect critical watersheds and wetlands among others.

With field protocols for groundwater assessment in place and the project team equipped with the required skills, the field work is all set for kickoff in May. The project will go on till December 2022.

Members of groundwater assessment task team at a recent training. Photo: NECS

The goal is to understand the availability of groundwater and its accessibility. The study will result in an inventory of groundwater in the selected sites of the two Dzongkhags, which will serve as a baseline for assessing its potential for abstraction. The field work will help establish procedures and build capacity for undertaking such assessments in the rest of the country.

“Groundwater is an important water resource, but much remains to be explored. The assessments will enhance our existing limited knowledge and database on groundwater reserves in the country. In other words, it’s about making groundwater, an important hidden water source ‘visible’, which is critical for enabling its effective and sustainable management,” said the Water Resources Coordination Division (WRCD), NECS.

A woman watering her garden. Photo: UNDP SGP/ Tenzin Wangchuk

Exploring, protecting, and sustainably using groundwater has never been more important than now. The demand for water is ever growing with the increase in population, and urbanization, farming and industrialization. But water flow is becoming erratic with seasonal scarcity due to climate change. Groundwater offers hope and respite in a world plagued by water stress. It is an important alternative water source central to meeting the increasing demand for water as well as adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world. Despite the abundant water resources, water scarcity has become a growing concern due to climate change.

Nuns at a nunnery in Punakha district washing their hands. Photo: UNDP SGP/ Tenzin Wangchuk

“Groundwater has always been critically important but not fully recognized in the sustainable development policy making. Hence, this year’s World Water Day theme, “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible” draws attention to the vital role groundwater plays in water and sanitation systems, agriculture, industry, ecosystems and climate change adaptation,” said UNDP Resident Representative Azusa Kubota.

“The ongoing groundwater assessment will pave the way for exploration of groundwater as an alternative water source. This study will enable Bhutan to make informed decisions backed by science for effective planning and sustainable management of this precious water resource.”

Stored underground beneath the earth’s surface, groundwater serves as a large subsurface water reservoir that contributes to the overall surface water availability. For instance, springwater sources, one of the primary sources of drinking water in Bhutan, are intricately linked to underground aquifers. Therefore, the groundwater assessment will also help Bhutan understand why its springwater sources are said to be drying up.

“An in depth understanding of our water resources based on scientific data and analysis will help us work towards ensuring a healthy water cycle and avoid aquifer depletion, leading to enhanced water as well as environmental security and increased resilience to disasters,” said WRCD, NECS.

The groundwater assessment is being carried out as part of the project, “Preparation of a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) for Bhutan, with a focus on the water sector”. The project, being implemented by NECS in collaboration with several other government agencies and technical support from UNDP, benefits from a US$ 2.7 million grant from the Green Climate Fund, a fund created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to support the efforts of developing countries to respond to the challenges of climate change.



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