Mountain ecosystems and impacts of Climate Change on water resources of Bhutan

9th to 11th February, 2011 in Paro (Bhutan)


Global warming is happening as is evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and observed decreases in mountain glaciers. The impact on subsistence agricultural practices and water resources are of particular concern.  Climate change will exacerbate existing economic, political, and humanitarian stresses. It will compound existing water scarcity problems, increase the number of people suffering water stress, reduce access to safe drinking water and impact on rain-fed agriculture.

Bhutan and the Himalayan mountainous region is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to climate change.  In fact, climate change is recognized as the greatest long-term threat to the South Asian region where 21% of the world’s population lives on only 4% of the world’s total physical area. Experts have stated categorically that the poorest of the poor in South Asia are affected the most by climate change; tens of millions in the region could be at risk from rising seas, melting glaciers and increased likelihood of floods and droughts.  


Environmental conservation is a strong tenet of development in Bhutan. The country has gained global acclaim for advocating the Gross National Happiness (GNH) approach to development where environmental conservation is prioritized with socio-economic development, good governance, and preservation of culture.

According to the Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the glaciers in Himalayas are receding at the fastest rate, so much so that there may not be any glaciers in Himalayas by 2035. This trend exacerbates the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) which will impact the livelihoods and threat to the downstream areas. In the longer run, this would also mean the lack of discharge and flow in the rivers which otherwise are the source of hydropower generation and agriculture currently.


Bhutan is also not spared of the ill effects of globalization, concentrated urbanization and rapid socio-economic development. Even though Bhutan is endowed with aplenty fresh renewable water resources with one of the highest per capita water availability, localized water scarcity is seen as an emerging issue in some parts of the country. This is more pertinent in the urban centers due to concentration of population and ineffective delivery and conveyance of the water services.

The reports on the disappearance of some of the perennial water sources have led to thinking that Climate change could be the likely culprit. The above emerging issues on water could be dealt through some of the following approaches:

(a)  Effective institutional mechanisms
(b)  Adoption of the concepts of IWRM
(c)  Building capacity of Bhutanese water stakeholders
(d)  Formulation and implementation of water legislations
(e)  Adaptation and mitigation
(f)   Learning from the lessons learnt in the region
(g)  Adoption of some of the best practices on water resources management