© WWF Bhutan/Phurba
Bhutan has abundant freshwater resources with per capita availability of 94,508 cubic meters per annum. The country is divided into five major hydrological basins covering an area of 3.8 million hectares with total annual flow of 70,576 million cubic meters. The extensive river systems flow north to south and drains into the mighty Brahmaputra river in Assam, India. These basins and rivers are fed by monsoon rains supplemented by an estimated 2-12% glacial melt and another 2% from snow melt. The basins are further delineated into 186 watersheds to facilitate strategic management interventions.

A total of 3067 high-altitude wetlands, including glacial lakes and marshes above 3000 m have been documented as of 2011. The freshwater biodiversity information base is limited and scattered. Currently 167 species of fish and 3 species of freshwater otters have been documented with more species expected to occur. Seven species of fish occurring in the waters of Bhutan are listed as threatened in the IUCN Red List, of which three are assessed as ‘Endangered’ and four as ‘Vulnerable’. Likewise, many other freshwater taxa remain undocumented. Besides drinking water, the main users of Bhutan’s freshwater resources are agriculture, hydropower, tourism and industrial sectors. Hydropower and tourism are the main drivers of the economy and principal sources of foreign exchange, which generated annual revenue of US$192 m and US$ 71.04 m respectively in 2015.

Over the last five years, water for hydropower development, has received increasing focus (14.15 % GDP) with seemingly less priority given to irrigation, industrial and environmental water demand. Currently Bhutan has 1,606 MW operational hydropower plants and 3,658 MW under construction. Rapid impacts on aquatic biodiversity due to disruption of river connectivity (free flowing river 69%) is predicted after 10,000 MW by the World Bank 2016 report. With over 58% of the population engaged in subsistence farming and livestock rearing, water security is a growing concern in Bhutan. Water shortages are being reported from both urban and rural areas with streams and springs drying up in many places
around the country.

These are linked to rapid socio-economic development, urbanization and increasing population, which is also affecting water quality. Pollution of water bodies such as streams and rivers from sewage and other solid waste is becoming an area of concern not only for aquatic biodiversity but also for human health and sanitation. In addition to the above issues, Bhutan is also venerable to the impacts of climate change. The river systems
which are heavily monsoon-fed already run low in the dry season. With warmer temperatures and less snow and more rainfall predicted during the monsoon season, the country is highly prone to water related natural disasters like flooding and landslides during the wet season especially if the watershed and catchment areas are not well managed.

On the other hand, reduced river flow in dry season is predicted due to less snow and ice to feed the rivers. Thus, conservation and sustainable management of Bhutan’s freshwater resources is important and is guided by the WWF Freshwater Practice Strategy goal and outcomes linked to “Healthy Habitats and Species” and “Clean Flowing Rivers”. These outcomes also contribute towards achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 “Water for All”.

GOAL: Freshwater ecosystems and their services sustained to benefit people and nature.