Bhutan struggles with local water supply shortages

South Asia’s most water abundant country, Bhutan, faces local water shortages because of poor management and accessibility
<p>A local representative inspects fallow fields in the town of Phangyul, Bhutan [image by Dawa Gyelmo]</p>

A local representative inspects fallow fields in the town of Phangyul, Bhutan [image by Dawa Gyelmo]

Every other day, Phub Dem, from the remote village of Phangyul in western Bhutan, travels up to three kilometres to fetch drinking water. Sometimes she gets a lift in her neighbour’s tractor but most of the time she has to walk.

The community has faced growing water shortages over the past decade as nearby streams and other water sources have completely dried up. Around 700 acres of land in the area has been left fallow and some farmers have migrated to towns because of the lack of water.

There are similar reports of local water shortages across the country – both in rural villages and around the capital city of Thimphu.

The surprising thing is that Bhutan is not water scarce. In fact, Bhutan has “has an abundance of water,” said Lance Gore, water resource specialist with the Asian Development Bank. The country needs better development and coordinated management of existing water resources, he added. This is the conclusion of studies by the National Environment Commission and Asian Development Bank carried out for Bhutan’s first National Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, which was inaugurated on March 22 coinciding with World Water day.

A landowner gestures at her dry fields, left fallow, Bhutan [image by Dawa Gyelmo]
A landowner gestures at her dry fields, left fallow [image by Dawa Gyelmo]
The new plan is based on analysis of the country’s hydrology and the future impact of climate change which will only worsen the problems, said Tenzin Wangmo, chief environment officer with the National Environment Commission of Bhutan.

Localised water supply issues

Bhutan’s per capita water availability of 109,000 cubic metres every year is one of the highest in the region, said Tenzin Wangmo. This is in stark contrast to the relative water stress suffered by neighbouring countries India and China.

Despite this abundance, water availability varies between seasons and there are many localised problems. Access to water is the biggest challenge for scattered communities living on the mountain slopes where they draw water from small, sometimes distant, streams and springs.

Shortages have been reported in the eastern areas including Trashiyangtse, Trashigang and Trongsa, as well in the southern districts of Gelephu, Dagana and Samtse, said district officials. It’s not just rural villages; in the southern part of Thimphu the Babesa community has reported water shortages even though it is a fairly big town by Bhutanese standards.

A 2014 inventory of rural households carried out by the health ministry found that 13,732 rural households across the country faced drinking water problems (17% of the total number of households).

Delivering a stable water supply is inherently costly, especially in a mountainous country like Bhutan. There has been a lack of investment in water storage, reservoirs, pumps and operation systems, said Tenzin.

Bhutan’s future

ADB’s Lance Gore said one of their findings was that climate change is already affecting Bhutan – in both negative and positive ways. This will change farming practices and access to water in the long-run. Overall, “with climate change in many parts of Bhutan there will be more water throughout the year,” he said.

Climate impact assessments show that temperatures in Bhutan are expected to rise, particularly in the north of the country. Increased snow and glacial melt will have an impact on river discharge.

Rainfall will become more erratic and intensive, particularly in the south of the country during monsoon season when water is already abundant. This will increase the runoff and sediment load in rivers during summer, increasing the risk of floods. Lower river flows are expected in winter, although no overall change in minimum flows.

All this may seem at odds with the frequent reports of water sources drying up. However, the new water plan says that rainfall has declined over the last two decades in a number of stations spread over the country. “This shows how delicate it is with still limited data to draw conclusions in relation to climate and climate change,” it states, while proposing building storage for monsoon water where possible.

Bureaucratic water sector

The water problems are worsened by the lack of coordination between different governments agencies involved in the water sector, said Tenzin Wangmo. This includes the ministry of health, responsible for rural water supply, the works and human settlement that supplies water in urban areas and the ministry of agriculture responsible for irrigation and hydropower.

The new national water plan has developed a framework to better coordinate between departments and a more integrated approach to water resource management. The new plan also recognises that water pollution is becoming a problem in some places in Bhutan, while the country’s institutional mechanisms to monitor water quality and impose sanctions on polluters remain ineffective.


Tomorrow: Erratic weather spells tough time ahead for Bhutan’s hydropower