Bhutan’s climate change victims

Hazardous glacial lakes in the Himalayas have made headlines in recent weeks; they are growing alarmingly fast because of melting glaciers. Some are at risk of rupturing, which would flood populated areas downstream. Experts now warn that earthquakes could compound the risk of glacier lakes bursting, sparking devastating mountain tsunamis.

Scientists in Nepal have developed new methods to manage the threats of these floods, by monitoring glacier melt through remote sensing and developing early warning systems. In neighbouring Bhutan, glacial lakes also pose a big threat; but the country is struggling to minimise the risks.

An article by Bhutanese journalist Tashi Dorje, published on the Biodiversity Media Alliance, sheds light on the human costs of managing the threat of thesefloods in Bhutan, where three men have died trying to drain water from the swollen Thorthormi lake:

“The country is in debt to three young men who lost their lives for a national cause. But it is a sad story that their deaths have been downplayed in every sense of the term.

The young men lost their lives as they were on their way to lower the water level of Thorthormi Lake, the biggest and the most dangerous glacial lake in the Bhutanese Himalayas….The deaths expose the failings of a system which is unprepared to challenge the brutal realities of the changing climate. It also shows that priorities are misguided and saving the nation takes a backseat if there is no glamour involved.”

Dorje underlines the complacency of the Bhutan government – widely praised for its efforts to cope with climate change – in responding to these risks, and in doing so presents a rare critical voice from the Himalayan Kingdom:

“The impending danger of glacial floods has been recognized by Bhutan. But apart from lobbying for international funds to address the dangers posed by the glacial floods (and climate change at large), there is hardly anything notable that we are doing ourselves to tackle the issue.

We have left no stone unturned to ensure that the world regards us as a “green” country. We have taken environment conservation as one of the pillars of our development philosophy of gross national happiness. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa government even made a bold declaration during the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009, that Bhutan will remain carbon neutral for all time to come.

But going back to the fundamentals, we may have clogged ourselves up with formulating excellent policy papers, but failed to move beyond this and take action….

…But apart from facilitating the project and mobilizing human resources, the government has not contributed any money for the project. This is one of the reasons why the project has to be carried out on such a stringent budget. The over 340 Bhutanese workers involved in lowering the lake’s water level were given a meagre daily wage of 500 ngultrum (nu) [$US 11] – less than double the national daily minimum wage of 300 nu [US$ 6.7] – hardly any compensation for working in knee-deep icy waters at 4,300 meters”.

Read the full article on the Biodiversity Media Alliance site. Tashi Dorje is a reporter for Business Bhutan.

Watch this UN video “Bhutan Tsunami from the sky” to find out more about the Thorthormi lake Project.