The value of water in Bhutan

A reflection on what ‘valuing water’ means in Bhutan’s context, immediate and long-term threats to water from climate change, and how UNDP is supporting Bhutan in tackling water challenges and to accelerate progress on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.

Almost 99.6% of the households in Bhutan have access to safe drinking water.

This year’s World Water Day draws special attention to the value of water. The day calls on everyone to celebrate all the different ways in which water benefits our lives. It is hoped that this would help highlight the global water crisis and provide a fresh impetus to water management and conservation efforts.

For Bhutan, water holds enormous value not only from the agricultural and economic perspectives but also culturally and ecologically. Often dubbed as the ‘white gold’ and sometimes as the ‘powerhouse’ of economy, water is the lifeline of the country’s major economic drivers — agriculture, hydropower, and tourism. The three together account for almost a quarter of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and are all highly dependent on, and affected by, water. Agriculture alone is the lifeline of around 58 percent of the population and generates around 17 percent of GDP.

Recent estimates from the forestry sector pitch the value of Bhutan’s water between USD 742 — USD 747 million per year using current economic prices. The economic value is based on the ecosystem services water provides through hydroelectric generation, sediment removal in hydroelectric plants, and domestic water.

The sacred Buli lake in Zhemgang district.

The environment value of water is equally important. Bhutan is known for its rich flora and fauna, which remains a major draw for tourists. Without its abundant water resources, the pristine natural landscapes would disappear and the impacts on tourism sector would be damaging. Culturally, water holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Bhutanese people. Water bodies, such as lakes and mountains, are deeply revered and worshipped. The Bhutanese refrain from causing any harm to these sacred lakes and mountains out of respect for nature and fear of enraging deities and spirits that protect the country’s land.

Climate change and water

Bhutan’s water resources, however, are increasingly coming under threat from climate change and this is deeply worrying. The deep-rooted cultural beliefs and values that played a significant role in conserving environment and water resources for centuries may do little to save the country from the unforgiving impacts of the climate crisis.

Across the world, the impacts of climate change are felt mostly through water in the form of floods, droughts, and pollution. The story isn’t any different in Bhutan. The country 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. Despite the abundance of water resources, water scarcity has become a growing concern as climate change affects water availability.

Women and children are being impacted disproportionately as they spend more hours fetching water from far away sources.

Not very long time ago, the kingdom’s abundant water resources mostly gave life. Now, water gives and threatens life at the same time. Some rural communities are grappling with water scarcity as climate change causes springs and other water sources to dry up, affecting crop production, which in turn is, endangering the lives and livelihoods of many. On the other hand, there are communities that are experiencing increased incidences of flooding. Many urban settlements, which are located along major rivers are exposed to flood hazards.

The urban areas are also seeing an increase in the demand for water as population and economic activities surge. Growing demand and shrinking availability will cause water prices in cities to increase and have a profound impact on public health, affecting both personal hygiene and public sanitation. Investing in well-tested technologies to reduce wastage and optimize existing water resources are critical.

More than 300 men and women were employed to manually lower the water level of Thorthomi lake in Lunana from 2008–2012 through the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) I project from 2008–2012 supported by UNDP together with other partners.

The Glacial Lake Outburst Floods GLOFs) remains among the major climate induced threat in Bhutan. The rising global temperature is causing the country’s glaciers to melt at a rate never seen before. This will have detrimental consequences on agriculture and hydropower. The memories of the 1994 GLOF, caused by partial burst of the Luggye Lake in Lunana, are still fresh in the minds of many Bhutanese. The National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology warns that should the imminent convergence of Thorthormi and Raphstreng lakes in Lunana, currently separated by a fragile moraine dam, happen, Punakha will experience a flood that’s nearly three times more severe than the 1994 GLOF.

Water and the Sustainable Development Goals

Water lies at heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)- from ending hunger, to ensuring health and well-being, enabling productive industries, sustaining thriving communities and unlocking the potential of affordable and clean energy for all.

The SDG 6 on Clean Water and Sanitation seeks to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ by 2030. The Goal 6 is seen as one of the most challenging and off-track goals globally. Despite substantial progress made in increasing access to clean drinking water, 1 in 3 people, which is 2.2 billion worldwide, still live without safe drinking water. By 2050, more than half of the world’s population will live in water stressed regions.

Achieving Goal 6 is important because without access to water, it will be difficult to achieve other SDGs particularly Goal 1 (No Poverty), Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and Goal 13 (Climate Action). The SDG 6, therefore, provides a unique opportunity to accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda.

In Bhutan, almost 99.6% of the households have access to safe drinking water. But only 63% enjoy 24-hour access. In water-rich Bhutan, 32.9 per cent of people consider inadequate water supply to be the primary concern.

Supporting Bhutan’s efforts to tackle water challenges

UNDP is working closely with the Royal Government on measures to mitigate the impact of climate change on water. For instance, through the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) III project, climate resilient irrigation schemes are being constructed in water scarce communities. These irrigation schemes not only ensure uninterrupted water supply but also prevent leakages. Similarly, the Green Climate Fund supported climate resilient agriculture project is climate proofing irrigation schemes, strengthening water user associations, and scaling up smart and efficient irrigation systems.

The NAPA III project is also bringing 2000 hectares of agriculture land under sustainable management practices mostly through bench terracing. Bench terracing enables water retention and enhances soil moisture.

The National Environment Commission and UNDP are in the process of developing Bhutan’s first National Adaptation Plan (NAP) with a focus on water. The NAP will identify medium to long term adaptation priorities.

UNDP in close partnership with Royal Government and Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) is in the process of mobilizing resources for supporting access to adequate, clean, and reliable water supply in 10 districts through management of targeted catchment watersheds.

Contributed by Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative, Dechen Wangmo, Communications Analyst, Netra B Sharma, Project Manager/Technical Coordinator, Ngawang Gyeltshen, Project Coordinator, Sangay Chophel, Project Technical Specialist, Tshering Penjor, Project Technical Specialist & Ugyen Dorji, RBM & Programme Management Specialist.

Empowering lives and building resilient communities to leave no one behind.