How climate change is hurting the Happiest Place on Earth
September 18 | Conde Nast Traveller | US
By Shivya Nath
A nearly full moon rose over the gentle valley, bathing the traditional stone, mud and wood houses–and the smoke rising from their chimneys–in its magical glow. In ours, built over 80 years ago, we gathered in the cosy kitchen warmed by the traditional bukhari, with our hostess Tashi, to drink the fiery home-made rice brew ara. As the potent drink warmed up our bodies, I was surprised to learn that in 2018, only about 30 foreigners had made it to her homestay–the most popular in the remote valley of Ura in Central Bhutan’s Bumthang region. The land of buckwheat, potatoes, apples and peaches. Surrounded by blue pine forests and wildflower-filled meadows. Roads came to the valley only in the 1990s, but it continues to be self-sufficient: food is grown locally, water comes from the mountain spring, wood from the community forest (cut with permission only), and education and healthcare are covered by the state.
Sounds like a happy place, I said, gulping down my drink, expecting Tashi to concur.
She did concur, but not without a caveat: the growing challenges of changing weather patterns.
A direct hit on revenue
Bhutan’s three major sources of revenue—agriculture, hydropower and tourism—are climate-vulnerable. During my four weeks in the country, I met Tashi and other farmers who have adapted to the changing climate patterns. They are cultivating rice earlier in the year, growing vegetables like pumpkin and broccoli in Bumthang where it was significantly colder a decade ago, and relying more heavily on the weather forecast to determine when to plant and harvest.
As rainfall patterns change, the past few years have seen another worrying trend. In winter, many of Bhutan’s gushing rivers reduce to a trickle, compelling this exporter of hydropower to import electricity from India. As the weather fluctuates between the extremes, electricity consumption has risen too. In the capital city Thimphu, for instance, air-conditioners, fans and mosquitoes have become ubiquitous in the summer—an alien concept in the early ’90s.
Tshering Dhendup—who started his career in the tourism industry as a guide way back in 1994 and later founded Druk Asia, one of Bhutan’s largest inbound travel agencies—has witnessed these changes in person. “Until a decade ago, we saw snow-capped mountains throughout the year, even at low mountain peaks like Phajoding near Thimphu. Back then, we experienced winter snowfall even in lowland valleys like Punakha. Snow in these areas is a rarity now,” he lamented, recalling the early days of Bhutan’s tourism industry with only about 60 guides across the country in the ‘90s. That number has now grown to over 5,000. Many agencies have started advising their clients to carry a mosquito repellent and consider a malaria/dengue vaccination while visiting the country.
Bhutan’s visionary high value–low impact tourism model, which mandates a minimum spend of $250 (Rs17,000) per night per foreign visitor, has been instrumental in subsidising high quality education and healthcare across the country. But a guide I met in Haa Valley in western Bhutan, worried that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet tourist expectations on their often ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ journey to Bhutan. Wildflowers bloom at unpredictable times, landslides and heavy rainfall often disrupt regional flights, and storms and flashfloods are becoming common.
Not their doing
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is grappling with a problem that is not of their making. While the rest of the world is struggling to reduce its carbon emissions, Bhutan has long achieved and maintained its ‘carbon negative’ status. The majority of its electricity comes from hydropower, and over 70% of the country comprises protected forests. As per the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’s “carbon comparator” tool, its forests absorb at least three times the amount its population emits.
Yet, Bhutan’s glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate—receding almost 30-60 metres per decade. The UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Portal warns: “With a majority of Bhutan’s population and infrastructure development concentrated in large river valleys, climate-induced GLOFs (Glacial Lakes Outburst Floods due to melting glaciers) could cause significant human and economic devastation.” Self-sustainable valleys like Ura, despite being surrounded by carefully protected primary forests, are under threat of being devastated by rising mean temperatures. Climate change obviously doesn’t recognise manmade borders.
Building climate resilience
The focus in Bhutan is slowly shifting towards climate adaption. A Disaster Preparedness Pilot Project is underway, to train search and rescue teams and first aid volunteers across the country to act in times of natural calamities. According to the UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Portal, other adaptation projects in the pipeline include landslide management and flood prevention, and community-based forest fire management and prevention.
The country is urging its neighbors to act too. In his TED talk, the country’s ex-Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay proposed the creation of a “Third Pole Council”–third pole because after the north and south poles, the Hindu Kush glaciers are the earth’s largest reserves of ice–a high-level, intergovernmental organisation with all 8 countries in the region, tasked with the singular responsibility of protecting the world’s third-largest repository of ice. He emphasised that “we have to work together, because thinking globally, acting locally does not work. We’ve tried that in Bhutan.” Indeed, Bhutan’s two immediate neighbours–India and China–are among the world’s largest emitters, and given the trans-boundary nature of the climate crisis, Bhutan continues to suffer the consequences. South Asia policy expert Siddharth Goel, founder of Rethinking Public Policy, concurs, “Local climate action is not enough,” he says, “We need a regional platform to foster cooperation to enable climate mitigation and adaptation. The South Asia region–with its complex developmental challenges and overreliance on glacial rivers–is the most vulnerable to the impact of the melting glaciers.”
Bhutan has often made the headlines for its Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI), which measures the country’s prosperity not by economic growth but by 33 socio-economic indicators spanning domains like health, education, psychological well-being, standard of living, culture and environment. The country’s development model—which prioritises contentment over capitalistic consumption—could be a panacea for climate change if emulated by other developing countries and the west alike. “Life is about balance here,” many locals told me proudly when we discussed their take on the GNHI. Unfortunately, the global climate crisis is threatening that balance.
(Shivya Nath is the author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star, and an award-winning travel blogger.)