Sherab loved music and that’s how this 22-year-old village boy from Eastern Bhutan landed in capital Thimphu as an emcee with a small time dance bar. Though earning just 3,000 ngultrums (US$ 67) a month, he dreamt big; a car, a house, and a business.
In June, Global Warming came as the savior. He left the job to join 300 men,who would lower the water level of a melting glacial lake. From an altitude of 4,400 meters above sea level, the lake threatened to submerge human settlements, Buddhist monuments, agricultural land and huge hydropower projects.
From the US$ 7.8 million fund for the lake lowering project, Sherab would have earned his share of US$ 337 a month for removing huge boulders, digging small channels to divert water, and suffering the bone-eating Himalayan chill.
But on the way to the work site, Sherab died of altitude sickness, one of the first three direct victims of climate change in Bhutan, a country that has pledged to remain carbon negative.
“The government has dared to take a very ambitious decision to declare carbon neutrality,” Bhutanese delegation leader, Yeshey Penjor, told during the April United Nations Climate Change talks in Bonn, Germany.
For this poor country, roughly the size of Switzerland, staying carbon neutral is a conscious decision. Bhutan’s new constitution ensures a 60% forest cover for all times to come. And environment conservation is one of the four pillars of the country’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness.
The government is worried about pollution from the increasing number of cars and Buddhists cutting down trees to erect prayer flags. Bhutan’s unique selling point, apart from its happiness philosophy of GNH is hydropower. Dams are being built across glacial-fed rivers to capture energy which is then sold to neighboring India.
By the end of this decade, the country is planning to produce 10,000MW of electricity for export.
But the shrinking of glaciers is worrying policy makers. More than the threat from what climate scientists calls Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, the fear of rivers running dry in vexing. The country’s rivers which snake along valleys dotted with centuries old stupas, lush green fields and Swiss-style mud houses, depend on the glacial lakes. There are around 3,000 lakes of which 24 are melting fast and the water level is rising at a rate of about 35 meters a year.
The water-lowering team, of which Sherab was a member, has to walk around 10 days to reach the 3.42 sq km Lake Thorthormi, the most dangerous of all. A natural dam holds the lake together. But the ice around the lake, which feeds the Punatsangchu river is melting fast and filling the lake. The bursting of the dam can spell disaster for the power projects. And the loss of the lake and fast melting of other glaciers can reduce the water level in the river, across which Bhutan is planning around three projects of around 6,000 MW.
These possible “mountain tsunamis” threat this aid-dependent country at a time when it is aiming to become a self-sufficient by 2020 with the money earned from selling hydropower.
Policymakers here feel that while other countries are being compensated for reducing pollution and destruction of forests, Bhutan’s efforts at conversation is not being recognized. Bhutan’s emission is -5. But its voice at the the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) Climate Change conference in Copenhagen last December was throttled among issues of its growing neighbors, India and China.
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