The gods must be angry – a Himalayan account

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Business Bhutan, Rio de Janiero, Brazil

In the agrarian Himalayan country of Bhutan, farmers are resolute that the gods have been angry with them for over a few decades now.

It is a country where the natural rivers, ponds, mountains and even rocks have been revered for centuries as the abode of deities and gods and are thus considered sacred. Such beliefs have worked wonders and complimented effective natural conservation efforts. But lately the gods have really turned angry and there is no use convincing rural farmers that they are wrong.

In a country where prayers have persuaded gods to give rain and religious chants have cured illnesses since time immemorial, the natural dynamics have been changing much to the dismay of common farmers and highlanders. Unseen forces have definitely distorted natural equilibrium.

The Rain God is angry

Natural rainfall is no longer predictable. It seems to pour at its own will and more than 60% of the population comprising illiterate farmers is now exposed to more uncertainties than ever before.

Rural farmers who have adapted to age old farming practices which are completely depended on natural rainfall are now left to come to their own conclusions. The angry Rain God sometimes does his work too early or at other times is too adamant to do its natural duty and comes late or doesn’t come at all. Some years, it just doesn’t stop raining for days.

To make it worse, small streams start drying up at the time when they are wanted the most. Many have already dried up.

While Bhutan has a lot of water per capita and a good river system, people don’t use river water for drinking and agriculture but it comes from smaller streams, springs and watersheds most of which are showing signs of drying up. Thinley Namgyel of the National Environment Commission says the situation will only worsen with time.

It has intensified societal and communal differences. Every cropping season, neighbors fight for their right to claim water. In a mountainous country, it has only become natural for farmers living on hill tops to command more right to natural streams. It also leads to more dispute cases going to courts.

For a country of less than a million people where motor roads provides the basic form of transportation, erratic and heavy rainfall also causes landslides blocking roads at a time when movement for the majority of the people becomes most crucial.

Even if the moody Rain God decides to stick to his time table, farmers are finding out that the crops their parents taught then to plant at their ancestral fields are not yielding as much as before.

A hotter Bhutan is making plants walk 

Scientific studies have proven that globally, temperature is increasing more in the mountains than other areas, said Thinley Namgyel.

The Natural Sciences of adapting to change in temperature also calls for a change in habit and lifestyle which comes only after a strong political will is invested in the form of time, resources and energy which are tricky issues for a least developed country.   

For example, in 2003, the then agriculture minister tried out planting paddy in a sub-alpine altitude in central Bhutan. It yielded. The minister was applauded for his experiment but not a single report linked it to changing weather patterns.

This incident showed that crops have started growing at different altitudes. Later studies showed that tree-lines are receding. It means that vegetation of lower altitudes have started gradually moving uphill. Such a trend means the birth of new vegetation at the foothills while the one at the hilltops will tip over and disappear from there.

Diseases are beating altitudes

The change in weather patterns and temperature is also accompanied by a literal explosion in new crop diseases and pests. It directly affects agricultural productivity making villagers vulnerable and more often than not leaving them helpless.

Studies have shown that rice and maize production may decrease notably in the next three to four decades. Study also shows that potato production may increase. “Production of some crops and increase and some may decrease. But overall, the impact will always be negative,” said Thinley Namgyel.

It has also been noted that tropical diseases like dengue and malaria and vector borne diseases like diarrhea have started appearing in much colder areas. Mosquito was found for the first time in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in the last decade.

The white gold is melting

Snow is becoming rarer. Just about a decade ago, snow in the capital city of Thimphu lasted for months in winter but now the city hardly sees the white flakes.

Many snow-laden Himalayan mountain peaks are losing their white caps and going bare. Many high mountain passes that used to be under snow throughout the year and were impossible for people to pass through are now becoming easier to cross.

Similarly, much higher up, the glaciers are retreating and the melt water is increasing the water level of existing lakes and also creating more new lakes. The mountainous geography of the Himalayas makes the glacial lakes very dangerous for people downstream because a bursting lake results into floods which can be devastating.

The Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) is seen as one of the most dangerous threats in mountainous countries like Bhutan. When a small glacial lake, Lugye Tsho, burst in 1994, the flood claimed 17 lives and washed away houses, crops and everything else in its way. Bhutan has 2,674 glacial lakes and 24 are in danger of bursting. The GLOFs are now increasingly being referred to as a mountain tsunami and impacts of a flood justify the name.

Bhutan is least prepared to deal with GLOFs because it lacks basic early warning systems. It also imposes a grave threat to hydropower projects along the river basin. Hydropower is Bhutan’s main source of revenue and one huge flood has the potential to bring the country’s economy to a standstill in one day. Moreover, many villages, settlements, towns, and major institutions are also located along river basins posing great threats to them.

Information drought

Assessing impacts of climate change require a good tabulation of long term data. But Bhutan severely lacks it. “We don’t have enough climate related information and it is a major problem,” says Thinley Namgyel. He said the quality of metrological data is poor and the available information doesn’t include that of the whole country.

Even today, there is virtually no information on snow. The metrology department is the only agency that is making attempts to record climate related data but despite its best efforts, is severely handicapped with the lack of expertise and monetary resources to do more.

The NEC has done few climate studies in an attempt to achieve data. “We did the studies not because we were interested but because nobody else was doing it,” said Thinley Namgyel. 

Bhutan’s climate focus in Rio

As a lone country, it will not be possible for Bhutan to push for any priority issues at the Rio+20 Summit. Like in every global negotiation, Bhutan will be siding with the least developing countries and the mountain countries to push forward and support its agenda.

On the mountain front, Bhutan will support research infrastructure to be strengthened in mountain countries and related areas like the investment needed thereof.

Since the Rio+20 Summit is expected to redefine global efforts on the climate front, Bhutan will keep a close tab on the negotiations for a global green economy which is one of the two priorities of the draft outcome document of the Summit.

“We would be interested in the financing of the green economy which is related to financing under climate change,” said Thinley Namgyel. “After COP 15 and 16 in Copenhagen and Cancun, there was an agreement that the money to help developing countries for adaptation and mitigation should be scaled up. The architecture of the fund is set up but we will be keeping tab on how the money will flow,” he said.

Back home, Bhutanese farmers, unlike bureaucrats and scientists, claim they know how to bring back things to normalcy – appease the gods. Taking stock of the painstakingly slow progress made in global climate negotiations, it has indeed become difficult to ignore the farmers.