From the Los Angeles Times

In the Himalayas, a climate-change calamity builds

Glacial melting threatens disastrous floods in Bhutan, one of the 
world's most environmentally vigilant nations.

By Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

April 20, 2008

PUNAKHA, BHUTAN - High in the Himalayas, above this peaceful valley 
where farmers till a patchwork of emerald-green fields, an icy lake 
fed by melting glaciers waits to become a "tsunami from the sky."

The lake is swollen dangerously past normal levels, thanks to the 
global warming that is causing the glaciers to retreat at record 
speed. But no one knows when the tipping point will come and the lake 
can take no more, bursting its banks and sending torrents of water 
crashing into the valley below.

Such floods from above have hit Punakha before, most recently in 
1994, a calamity that killed about two dozen people and wiped out 
livelihoods and homes without warning. But scientists say a new flood 
could unleash more than twice as much water and be far more 

Unfortunately, Punakha's residents are not alone in this picturesque 
Buddhist kingdom in having the threat of death and destruction 
hanging over their heads like an environmental sword of Damocles. 
Because of Earth's rising temperatures, at least 25 glacial lakes in 
Bhutan are at risk of overflowing and dumping their contents into the 
narrow valleys where much of the country's population lives.

Like many poor countries, isolated Bhutan is paying for the 
environmental damage wreaked by the developed world and the expanding 
economies of nations such as China and India, whose fossil-fuel 
consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions are pushing global 
temperatures relentlessly upward.

But the added, perhaps more bitter, irony here is that Bhutan 
probably has done more to safeguard its environment than almost any 
other country.

A land of breathtaking vistas, little pollution and great 
biodiversity, Bhutan regards conservation as one of its most 
important public-policy goals -- an anchor of "gross national 
happiness," the quirky measure of development concocted by the former 
king and upheld by his son, the current occupant of the throne.

Sustainable development is the official mantra. By law, the country's 
forest cover, including blue pine, cypress, spruce and hemlock, must 
never drop below 60%. Snow leopards, Himalayan black bears, barking 
deer and red pandas roam unmolested in the national parks and 
wildlife reserves that account for a quarter of Bhutan's territory. A 
sanctuary in the east is famous as the only one in the world set 
aside for the yeti -- or migoi, the mythical Abominable Snowman.

"This country is committed to being conducive to environmental 
sustainability and not to be harmful to the world, but the impact of 
climate change is coming anyway," said Doley Tshering of the United 
Nations Development Program office in Thimphu, the capital. "You know 
you haven't created the problem, [yet] you know you're probably 
having the worst of it."

Some shifting weather patterns are already being felt.

"The winters are not so cold. The hot season is arriving much 
earlier," Tshering said. "Even fruit trees that would not fruit in 
Thimphu, that people just planted as ornamental flowers, are now 
starting to fruit."

Less benign are diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, common in 
the lower-lying, warmer south, which are now appearing at higher 

Officials are also worried that any changes to Bhutan's monsoon 
season could deal a major blow to agriculture, the main source of 
income for about 70% of the country's population of fewer than 
700,000 citizens. Estimates of the population vary -- other agencies 
have put the figure as high as 2.3 million.

But possibly the most dramatic effect of global warming on Bhutan can 
be seen in its glaciers -- or, perhaps more accurately, not seen.

On satellite images taken in 2000 and 2001, some of the smaller ice 
sheets along Bhutan's 200-mile stretch of the Himalayas could no 
longer be found, according to a report last year by the International 
Center for Integrated Mountain Development and the U.N. Environment 

Experts estimate that Bhutan's glaciers are retreating by as much as 
100 feet annually. The loss has grave consequences for the country's 
long-term development: Bhutan relies heavily on selling hydroelectric 
power, which accounts for about a third of national revenue.

"In the short run, we'll have increased summer flows, but after 40 
years, it'll dry up," said Thinley Namgyel, a senior officer at 
Bhutan's National Environment Commission.

Of more immediate concern is the risk of floods from fast-filling 
glacial lakes.

In 1994, the Luggye lake burst and sent water hurtling down into 
Punakha. Now, a neighboring lake, the Thorthormi, poses an even 
greater peril.

Fed by a separate glacier, the Thorthormi has bulked up to alarming 
size and is in danger of swamping a third body of water, the 
Raphstreng. In a nightmare scenario, the two lakes could merge, punch 
through the natural but unstable moraine dams holding them back, and 
go cascading into the valley, picking up debris as they thunder 

A 2002 study estimated that such a rupture could send 14 billion 
gallons of water barreling toward Punakha, though not all of it would 
reach the valley. Still, that is more than double the amount released 
in the 1994 deluge and about the same volume that plunges over the 
top of Niagara Falls in five hours.

To try to prevent such a catastrophic flood, the government is set to 
embark on a four-year, $7-million project to relieve some of the 
pressure on the Thorthormi. The effort is fraught with difficulty. 
The lake is reachable only after 10 days' hiking and only through 
16,000-foot-high mountain passes from all directions.

Hauling major equipment up there, let alone getting it to work in the 
thin, frigid air, is so tricky that digging the channels to siphon 
off water from the lake will have to be done mostly by hand. Weather 
conditions allow for work barely six months of the year.

Not that there is much choice.

"Either drain it or get people out of the way," Namgyel said.

Officials hope also to install sensors as part of an early-warning 
system to alert residents in Punakha in case of a breach. In 1994, 
the floodwaters probably took several hours to reach the valley, but 
no one had any idea they were coming.

Gembo Tshering, a teacher, had just sat down to breakfast when the 
disaster struck.

"I heard the roar of rushing water," recalled Tshering, 52. "When we 
looked, the level of the Mo Chhu [the local river] had gone way up."

As he and others watched, the water kept rising. Across the way, a 
knot of people huddled on a patch of high ground. Logs that had been 
sucked into the maelstrom battered the banks and everything else in 
their path. Fields, homes and livestock were swept away.

Especially grievous to many in this devoutly Buddhist country was the 
effect on Punakha's 17th century dzong, the tall, whitewashed 
monastery-cum-fortress on the riverbank that once served as Bhutan's 
seat of government. The complex was surrounded by the tumbling 
waters, the force of which severely damaged one of the dzong's oldest 

Monks and novices in their burgundy robes clambered onto the rooftops 
to see what was happening. For three days they were marooned in their 
island monastery.

Kezang, a grizzled senior monk who uses one name, put his faith in 
divine protection.

"I wasn't particularly worried because of the blessing and the power 
of this place," he said, smiling through teeth stained red by 
betel-nut juice. "It was fearsome, but I wasn't afraid."

Scientists are not so sanguine. A flood of larger proportions 
emanating from above Punakha would be far more devastating now that 
new infrastructure, new hydroelectric projects and even a new town 
lie in its path.

Despite Bhutan's record as one of the world's most environmentally 
vigilant nations, it has no choice but to confront and plan for 
problems incurred by the actions of others, experts say.

"There is a sense of helplessness," said Tshering of the U.N. 
Development Program. "But at the same time, you can't sit back and do 
nothing about it."

[log in to unmask]