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
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
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
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
In 1994, the Luggye lake burst and sent water hurtling down into
Punakha. Now, a neighboring lake, the Thorthormi, poses an even
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
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
"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
Kezang, a grizzled senior monk who uses one name, put his faith in
"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
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."