By Karma Wangmo, Focal for Freshwater Practice, WWF-Bhutan
Rivers in Bhutan form one of the essential capitals providing freshwater resources for drinking, sanitation and contributes to almost half of the country’s Gross Domestic Product through hydropower and agriculture.
It has intricately developed economy of the country for centuries through agricultural activities, practiced generations through generations, including the time when Bhutan finally came out of self-isolation in 1970s. Bhutan opened its door to modern development and started the first Hydropower Project in Chhukha.
Today, water continues to drive Bhutan’s economy by providing water for hydropower that generates 99 percent of the electricity, supplies water for agriculture that employs over 60% of the rural population. It also provided water based recreational activities for tourism in the recent years.
Water resources are also deeply embedded into Bhutanese culture and spiritual ethos. From being used for daily offerings to being revered as an abode of the guardian deities, it forms an everyday living of Bhutanese.
Bhutanese come together to celebrate Blessed Rainy Day today. The annual festive celebration in the country would also mark the World Rivers Day. It is a unique opportunity for us to highlight the importance of clean water and cleaner waterways as we seek blessings from the blessed rain, an important source of water.
The value of rivers or waterways in Bhutan has conventionally been limited to agriculture and hydropower, but it is much more. Rivers play an indispensable role in the natural ecosystem providing vital and vibrant support to diverse flora and fauna that are essential for maintaining the natural landscape and ecosystem services.
Bhutan’s river system is home to some of the critical species including the critically endangered Golden Mahseer; a hugely revered icons in Buddhist faiths. As much as rivers are impacted by climate change, they also play a critical role in climate regulation through nutrient cycling, acting as carbon sink, and serve as natural flood control system, thereby mitigating the impacts of climate change.
As rivers play a multifaceted role in maintaining a sustainable ecosystem services, any changes in its system, flows and courses will adversely affect the ecology and disrupt ecosystem services. Therefore, we must strive to protect and conserve the rivers to not only ensure our survival but also contribute to better health and resilience of our planet.
What are the threats?
Rivers in Bhutan face a multitude of threats due to increasing pressure from a growing population, urbanization, poor management practices, and climate change.
The waste from the urban areas is ultimately disposed into rivers resulting in pollution and disruption of river hydrology, consequently affecting the livelihoods, ecosystem health and loss of ecosystem services.
The development and expansion of infrastructure along the rivers and its floodplain, fragments, and disrupts the migratory route of fish and water birds. There has also been a rise in unsustainable and illegal fishing putting further pressure on the fish population already stressed by habitat fragmentation and pollution.
As the impacts on rivers increases due to anthropogenic and climate change impacts, it has become more imperative than ever to act and contribute towards maintaining a natural river system.
With the changing climate, Bhutan will frequently experience extreme weather events: a more wet summer and driers winter months. The river flows will be affected, which in turn will impact the hydropower and agriculture activities that rely heavily on rivers. It is imperative that we adopt sustainable river management practices to ensure the continuous and enduring benefits derived from our rivers.
The world’s population is expected to reach nine million by 2050. This is expected to increase pressure on water resources with the increase in demand for food, energy, and manufactured goods, which are often water resource intensive.
What can we do?
This World Rivers Day and on the day, we seek rejuvenation in the blessed rain and waters, I hope we celebrate the day keeping in mind the solutions we could be as an individual, family, and as a community: a change from home.
It is important to build the resilience of the rivers amid increasing anthropogenic and climate change impacts. This can be done through investment in sustainable water resources management.
We must pledge to protect rivers and maintain natural river flows for people and nature to thrive.
Through different projects, WWF-Bhutan is engaged in promoting sustainable water resource management, water source revival and securing critical wetlands such as lakes and springshed.
WWF-Bhutan is currently working together with Tarayana Foundation in Lhop community in Samtse to secure drinking and irrigation water through watershed management project supported by International Climate Initiative.
Further, WWF-Bhutan is working with partners to protect water resources through ecotourism, such as the ecotourism facility developed at Pakhadura lake at Sangagcholing in Samtse in partnership with the Department of Forests and Park Services, Samtse Forest Division.
WWF-Bhutan is committed to safeguarding the freshwater resources and working closely with partners to maintain healthy freshwater ecosystem. It is through this commitment that we dedicate our conservation efforts to securing livelihoods, promote sustainable water resource management in the wake of worsening climate crisis.
As we mark this two important days: World Rivers Day and Blessed Rainy Day, at the heart of today’s celebration should be our prayers and pledge to secure this critical natural resource and keep this celebration alive for future generations
By Karma Wangmo, Focal for Freshwater Practice, WWF-Bhutan