In the Kingdom of Bhutan, the impacts of climate change have the potential to dramatically affect the largely rural population. Changes in the climate system are leading to changes in the hydrology and extreme weather of the region, upsetting local agriculture. Pests, diseases, and natural disasters may become more prevalent. The decentralized and rugged nature of the country presents unique challenges to its inhabitants in the face of climate change. Its population of around 750,000 people is mostly spread throughout small villages dotting the countryside.1 Around 80% of the population of Bhutan is directly involved in agriculture, mostly in the steep, narrow valley bottoms alongside the glacially-fed rivers used for irrigation.2
Unlike many of the countries in its region, Bhutan was never colonized by Western colonial powers, fostering a powerful sense of national identity.3 Because of its insular nature and the difficulty and expense involved in constructing roads through Bhutan’s rugged terrain, infrastructure and heavy industry has not developed; most industry is of the cottage variety.4 The only major exception is hydroelectric generation; Bhutan’s economy is largely driven by the export of hydropower to India.5 Tourism is a developing industry, but it too is hampered by a lack of infrastructure as well as Bhutan’s traditionally insular nature.6 The greatest potential for growth in Bhutan’s industrial sector is typically thought to be in the expansion of hydropower production, as currently only 5% of the 30-gigawatt hydropower potential has been utilized.7
- Hydropower: Changing weather patterns in Bhutan have the potential to initially bolster flow in many of Bhutan’s rivers, largely resulting from increased rates of glacier-melt. However, this flow will eventually be diminished as the glaciers recede and their surface area is decreased.8 A potential consequence of decreased river flow is a decrease in generation of hydroelectricity. While a decrease in hydroelectric generation is unlikely to directly impact the rural inhabitants of Bhutan, they would certainly be affected by the inflation and unemployment which accompanies economic downturn. Considering the vital role of hydropower in the Bhutanese economy, it is nearly certain that a decrease in generation would dramatically impact Bhutan’s economy.9 Compounding the issue is India’s stake in Bhutan’s growing hydroelectricity production. As evidenced by the subsidization of Bhutan’s central government’s expenses and the near-monopolization of its electricity exports, India is invested in an expansion of Bhutan’s hydroelectric capabilities.10 Taken alone, increased electricity exports would provide much needed revenue to Bhutan’s central government, but given the likelihood of decreased long-term prospects for river-flow, increasing economic dependence on energy exports has the potential to make Bhutan even less prepared to handle the threats which climate change creates and exacerbates.
- Agriculture: Changing weather patterns have the potential to dramatically impact agriculture in Bhutan, decreasing crop yields and damaging infrastructure.11 It is likely that changing rain patterns will impact Bhutan’s hydrology, making it harder to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops.12 The major limiting factors to agricultural productivity are difficulties with irrigation, thin and rocky soil, and a severely limited amount of arable land.13 The yield of crops is expected to suffer instability because of multiple factors stemming from climate change. Decreased water availability could inhibit crop yields, or increased rainfall could lead to crop-decimating floods.14 Changing rainfall patterns could lead to topsoil erosion, eroding soil fertility.15 Unseasonal extreme weather events such as hailstorms and flash floods can also adversely impact crop yields.16
- Disease & Pests: Additionally, changing temperatures can lead to outbreaks of pests and diseases in areas where they haven’t been previously seen.16
- Glacial Lake Outburst Floods
- The most dramatic impact of climate change in Bhutan might be the potential for increased rates of glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs.17 The shrinking of mountain glaciers in the Himalayas can lead to the formation of large glacial lakes held by unstable ice-dams, ultimately released in an unpredictable torrent of ice and water.18 GLOFs can lead to substantial loss of life and property, especially in Bhutan’s narrow, densely populated valleys.19 24 of the estimated 2674 glacial lakes in Bhutan are considered potentially dangerous, with risk rising as a function of temperature.20
Vulnerability & Exposure
- Decentralized government: The government of Bhutan is stable and democratic, but not very influential. It is a constitutional monarchy run by a hereditary king, supported by an elected Parliament.21 Despite the superficially functional nature of Bhutan’s government, the decentralized and self-sufficient character of the population diminishes both the functionality and the need for a strong central government.22 Additionally, the government of Bhutan suffers from a persistent budget deficit, with nearly 25% of 2016 budget expenditures financed by the government of India, Bhutan’s largest trade partner.23 The combination of poor infrastructure and a weak central government present the people of Bhutan with less support to counter climate change than citizens of more developed countries. The nature of the Bhutanese government severely limits the potential for internal climate modeling and forecasting.24 Combined with the complex topography of Bhutan, this lack of internal assessment means that predictions for climate change impacts are less comprehensive than in other regions.25
- Concentrated economy: The steep topography of Bhutan prevents farmers from easily shifting their fields in the face of changing conditions.26 Farms already cover the mere 8% of Bhutan’s land which is suitable for crops, supplying income for 80% of the population.27 Any substantial damages to the agricultural sector would impact Bhutanese farmers disproportionately considering the tight margins inside of which they operate.
- Under-developed infrastructure: The lack of infrastructure and communication in Bhutan makes disaster responses slower and less effective than more easily traversed regions, adding to the potential risk.28
Adaptation and Resilience
- Better infrastructure: With specific reference to the threat posed by glacial lake outburst floods, improvements to infrastructure could decrease the risks posed to those living below at-risk glacial lakes. When disaster strikes, the ability of emergency medical personnel to quickly and efficiently get to the scene is a principal factor in the likelihood of survival of those impacted. Consequently, the development of an improved road system in Bhutan would minimize the risks posed by GLOFs. Additionally, improved transportation infrastructure would likely support economic growth and diversification, another major step in decreasing the risk which climate change poses to Bhutan.
- Economic diversification: Climate change will likely cause major damage to Bhutan’s two major industries (hydro generation and agriculture). As a precautionary measure, it would be wise to pursue economic diversification to avoid the adverse economic impacts which occur when a country relies too much on a small number of economic drivers. While Bhutan’s self-sufficiency with regards to food puts them at minimal risk of famine relative to Middle-eastern petro-economies, a substantial downturn in either agriculture or hydroelectric generation could have disproportionate impacts on the livelihoods of the Bhutanese people.
As climate factors shift, it seems that the people of Bhutan will be faced with substantial threats to their lives and their prosperity. Changing hydrology will likely reduce crop yields, and disappearing glaciers could cripple the hydroelectric generation upon Bhutan’s economy is built. Bhutan’s central government seems ill equipped to assist its remote and isolated citizens both in terms of infrastructure and capital. In Bhutan, as in many other places, the least politically and economically empowered are the most impacted by environmental issues such as climate change.30