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Three deaths challenge bhutan’s commitment to climate change

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.

They lost their lives while they were on their way to lower the water level at Thorthormi, the biggest and the most dangerous glacial lake in the Bhutanese Himalayas, which could cause an unimaginable catastrophe if not tamed in advance.

The deaths expose the failings of a system which is unprepared to challenge the brutal realities of the changing climate that has spared no country. It also spells out how priorities are misguided and saving the nation takes a backstage if there is no glamour involved in it.

One of the biggest natural threats facing Bhutan today is the glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). We saw the fury of nature and the wrath of the glacial floods in 1994 when it claimed about 20 human lives and destroyed villages and farmlands along the Punatsangchu basin when the Lugye Tsho, a much smaller lake than Thorthhormi, gave way.

The impending danger of glacial floods has been recognized by Bhutan. We have even chastised GLOF as the number one threat of climate change to 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 on our own to tackle the issue.

We have left no stone unturned to ensure that the world see us as a green country. We have build environment conservation as one of the pillars of our development philosophy of gross national happiness. The DPT government even made a bold declaration during the world climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, last year, to remain carbon neutral for all times to come.

But going back to the fundamentals, we may have clogged ourselves with formulating excellent policy papers and not moving beyond it.

On a global scale, Bhutan was one of the first countries to come up with its National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) which was necessary under the mandates of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN body of climate change. We were also the first country to get monetary assistance from the LDC Fund under the Adaptation Fund of the UNFCCC under which the global environment facility (GEF) is funding Nu 130mn for the Thorthormi project.

But apart from facilitating the project and mobilizing human resource, the government has not contributed any money for the project.

It can be one of the reasons why the project has to be carried out along stringent budget provisions. The more than 340 Bhutanese workers involved in lowering the water level are given a meager daily wage of Nu 500 which is less than double the daily minimum wage of Nu 300 in the country and hardly any compensation for working in knee-deep icy waters at 4,300 meters.

While the few civil servants at the site have proper tents over their head, the workers use tarpaulin sheets as tents and use cheap Indian-made blankets to fight the below-zero temperature at night. The workers work with bare hands and have Nu 78 worth safety helmets.

The workers’ lives are insured for Nu 108,000 which is nothing compared to unskilled Indian laborers at the much comfortable downstream Punatsangchu hydro project who are insured for Nu 500,000 each.

What can be more inhuman than the fate of one of the workers who was left by his fellow team members to die after he suffered from altitude sickness along the way to the lake. Even the other two workers died of altitude sickness and the only doctor in the team was one who had limited experience in treating patients suffering from altitude sickness.

The poor organization of the Thorthormi project is also the failure of the government and the disaster management department in particular who failed to value human lives and compromised on providing basic necessities. The department should evolve its mandates from organizing disaster management workshops and dedicate itself more to such projects which will define the safety and future of the country.

Last month, in the Mont Blanc Alpine range of France, a project began to drain a lake trapped beneath a glacier at an altitude of 3,200 meters. Powerful pumps were flown in by helicopters to assist the workers who were looked after by mountain guides. Maybe we cannot afford to deploy helicopters and maybe machines cannot be used at the altitude of Thorthormi, but it would just take a dedicated effort toward the cause and nothing more to make a life saving difference.

 

Note: The above article appeared as an editorial in Business Bhutan Newspaper on September 18, 2010 and can also be accessed at http://www.businessbhutan.bt/?p=2723

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Comment by Tashi Dorji on June 3, 2011 at 13:01
Thanks Mike
Comment by Mike Shanahan on June 3, 2011 at 11:21

Great article Tashi. Please keep sharing your work here.

 

All the best

Mike

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