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DisasterLink Country Profile: Bhutan


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Bhutan at a Glance

Population: 787 Thousand
Major Threats: Earthquakes, Windstorms, Forest or Structural Fires, Landslides, Flash Floods, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), Outbreaks of Pests, Epidemics, Drought
Populations Affected: Rural and Urban Communities
Locations Affected: Wangduephodrang, Punakha Dzongkhags, Thimphu, Laya, Lungo, Phuentsholing, Pasakha
Industries Affected: Agriculture, Forestry, Hydroelectric Power, Infrastructure
Compounding Issues: Water shortages, Air pollution, Education, Renewable Energy, Biodiversity, Health, Disaster Risk Reduction
World Risk Index Ranking: 176
Global Climate Risk Index: 105 (2021)  

Introduction

Bhutan, a landlocked nation nestled in the eastern Himalayas of south-central Asia, has undergone a significant transformation in the latter half of the 20th century, transitioning from its historical isolation to a more connected and dynamic state. Improved transportation, notably a faster route from the Indian border to its capital, Thimphu, and political reforms initiated by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, have marked these changes. The shift away from an absolute monarchy in the 1990s culminated in the establishment of multiparty parliamentary democracy in 2008. Geopolitically, Bhutan holds a strategic position, situated between the Indian Assam-Bengal Plain to the south and the Tibetan Plateau to the north.

Bhutan’s geography gives rise to a diverse climate, with three primary climatic regions defined by elevation. From the hot and humid subtropical Duars Plain to the cooler Lesser Himalayas and the alpine tundra of the Great Himalayas, the country experiences striking meteorological variations. The central mountain valleys enjoy a temperate climate. Bhutan is also vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, glacial lake outburst floods, landslides, and forest fires.

According to the UN World Risk Index, Asia holds the second highest position. When considering the individual components of the model, Asia also ranks second and surpasses global medians in each aspect, except for adaptive capacities. Bhutan, however, falls into the lowest risk category and performs exceptionally well in these components, along with Uzbekistan, Brunei Darussalam, Turkmenistan, Qatar, the Maldives, Bahrain, and Singapore. The Royal Government of Bhutan has made substantial progress in disaster risk reduction, establishing the National Disaster Management Authority and Disaster Management Committees in all 20 districts, along with Disaster Management Contingency Plans. Given the heightened risk of natural hazards, capacity building, enhanced data systems, and heightened awareness are paramount to safeguarding Bhutan and its people from potential disasters.

Major Threats and Economy

Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest yet fastest-growing economies, achieved an average annual economic growth rate of 7.5% between 2006 and 2015, ranking 13th out of 118 countries. This growth outpaced the global average of 4.4%. This remarkable economic progress benefited a majority of Bhutanese citizens, with extreme poverty plummeting from 25% in 2003 to just 2% in 2012, as measured by the international poverty line of $1.90 a day (purchasing power parity). These poverty reduction results compare favorably with South Asia’s regional poverty rate of 19%. Bhutan also made significant strides in providing basic services such as healthcare, education, and asset ownership.

Bhutan’s recent economic developments, including robust lending growth, stable inflation, exchange rates, and substantial international reserves, indicate continued solid and stable growth in the first half of 2017. The country’s gross international reserves exceeded $1 billion, equivalent to 10 months of imports of goods and services by mid-2017. This substantial reserve level aligns with the minimum requirements outlined in Bhutan’s 2008 Constitution. Moreover, Bhutan’s currency, the ngultrum, which is pegged to the Indian rupee, remained stable and even appreciated slightly against the U.S. dollar. Despite these achievements, Bhutan must vigilantly monitor its development due to various challenges.

In addition to potential delays in hydropower construction, Bhutan faces three other downside risks to its growth: budgetary challenges due to increasing expenditures and delays in revenue from hydropower projects, disruptions in trade caused by India’s Goods and Services Tax (GST), and vulnerability to natural disasters like floods and landslides, which can reduce electricity generation and negatively impact the economy.

Climate Change Impacts

Bhutan faces significant vulnerability to climate change due to its status as a landlocked, least-developed country with a fragile mountainous environment, substantial reliance on agriculture, and a vital hydropower sector. The nation confronts various climate hazards and extreme events, including flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), windstorms, forest fires, and landslides. While global warming is primarily attributed to human activities, Bhutan acts as a net sink of greenhouse gases due to its extensive forests. Nonetheless, emissions within Bhutan have increased in line with socio-economic development, though they remain within the capacity of the country’s forests.

Bhutan’s vulnerability to climate change is evident across key sectors, including water resources, agriculture, human health, energy (hydropower), forests, biodiversity, and natural disasters. Rapid glacier melting and the risk of GLOF events are major concerns. As temperatures rise, Bhutan anticipates northward migration of its forests and increased moisture stress in cloud forests, posing habitat loss risks for plant and bird species. Water resources are threatened by glacial retreat, glacial lake outburst floods, and reduced water availability. Climate change’s impact on air quality could worsen respiratory disorders and ozone concentrations. Additionally, climate-related wildfires may lead to air pollution, and changes in aeroallergens may affect pollen seasons. Land use changes driven by climate change may intensify soil erosion, floods, and landslides, ultimately impacting food and water supplies, livelihoods, and adaptive capacity.

Hydrometeorological Vulnerability

In 2016, Bhutan experienced an unusually intense monsoon season, particularly impacting the country’s southern regions. These heavy rains triggered numerous landslides, causing extensive damage to major highways, smaller roads, and bridges, effectively cutting off various communities. Of particular concern was the disruption of the crucial Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway, which serves as a vital artery for transporting essential goods, including food and fuel, from India to a significant portion of Bhutan. The partial collapse of the Kamji bridge added to anxiety, raising fears of shortages among the residents of the capital city and nearby districts. The overall impact of these floods resulted in a 0.36 percent decrease in Bhutan’s gross domestic product (GDP). Flash floods and landslides have additionally become an annual occurrence along Bhutan’s roadways.

Bhutan, guided by its Gross National Happiness vision, stands as a remarkable example as the world’s sole carbon-negative country, demonstrating exceptional leadership in addressing climate change. Nonetheless, despite this progress, Bhutan faces ongoing challenges in understanding and adapting to the ramifications of climate change. As the effects of climate change continue to intensify, the frequency of significant hydro-meteorological hazards is anticipated to rise.

Geophysical Vulnerability

Bhutan faces a significant geophysical risk due to its location in the seismically active Himalayan region. Bhutan spans the Himalayan range and is underlain by the Main Himalayan Thrust (MHT), making it susceptible to seismic activity. Recent research shows significant micro seismicity in Bhutan, emphasizing its vulnerability to large earthquakes. However, there have been no comprehensive Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analyses (PSHA) specifically for Bhutan. Existing studies categorize Bhutan as a high-hazard zone based on seismic source area-based models. Historically, large earthquakes, such as the 8.7 magnitude Assam earthquake in 1950 and the 7.8 magnitude Gorkha Nepal earthquake in 2015, have affected neighboring areas, causing fatalities and damage. Even though Bhutan hasn’t experienced extremely large earthquakes, evidence suggests the region has been prone to major seismic events. Studies indicate the likelihood of surface-rupturing paleo-earthquakes, with estimated return periods ranging from 550 to 870 years.

Secondary earthquake-related risks, like landslides and liquefaction, pose additional threats to Bhutan. The southern region is particularly susceptible to liquefaction due to water-saturated sediments, risking blockages on roadways, while landslides affect transportation and access to remote areas.

Adaptation and Local Context

Environment Protection

Institutional arrangements in Bhutan for climate change management are structured around the National Environment Commission (NEC), which oversees climate change matters. The Multi-Sectoral Technical Committee on Climate Change (MSTCCC), established in 2010, coordinates technical aspects of climate change activities. Additionally, a dedicated Climate Change Division was formed within the NEC in 2009.

Bhutan’s commitment to carbon neutrality is enshrined in its constitution, mandating the preservation of at least 60% of the country’s total land mass under forest cover. This pledge was initially made in 2009 during the 15th Conference of Parties to UNFCCC and has been reaffirmed in Bhutan’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for the Paris Climate Agreement. Bhutan’s low-emission development strategies and action plans encompass various sectors, such as industry, transport, waste, and construction, with efforts aimed at reducing emissions. Furthermore, the nation implements adaptation measures through projects like the National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA), focusing on reducing vulnerabilities to climate-induced hazards. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests and the Ministry of Health are also engaged in climate adaptation initiatives, while Bhutan is preparing to participate in the REDD+ program to reduce deforestation, enhance carbon sequestration, and promote sustainable forest management. Finally, Bhutan is developing National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) to integrate climate adaptation into policy while synchronizing with the Paris Agreement reporting cycles.

Disaster Risk Reduction

Demonstrating significant progress in disaster risk reduction, the Royal Government of Bhutan has established the National Disaster Management Authority and Disaster Management Committees in all 20 districts through the 2013 Disaster Management Act. Additionally, these districts have implemented Disaster Management Contingency Plans (DMCP). Given the heightened exposure to various natural hazards, the government prioritizes capacity enhancement, improved data systems, and heightened awareness. A disaster affecting Bhutan, especially amidst the socio-economic challenges posed by COVID-19 and other global crises, could result in catastrophic consequences for the nation and its citizens.

Investment

Bhutan, guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), aims to maximize the well-being of its citizens while focusing on sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and good governance. Over the past few decades, the nation has made significant progress in reducing poverty, increasing GDP per capita, and improving living standards. With an average economic growth rate exceeding 7% in the last decade, Bhutan is recognized as an emerging economy in the region. 

The government of Bhutan is actively working to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by liberalizing FDI policies, reforming economic strategies, and fostering a favorable investment climate. The country’s strategic location, particularly its strong trade ties with India, its membership in regional organizations like SAARC and BIMSTEC, and its stable political and economic context make it an appealing destination for investors. Bhutan’s commitment to environmental sustainability, high-quality public education, and alignment with GNH principles provide unique investment opportunities in areas like education, wellness, herbal medicine, and IT, allowing investors to not only seek returns but also contribute to the principles of Gross National Happiness and environmental conservation. These value-based ventures offer a special and enduring experience in a world facing consumerism and environmental challenges. 

Opportunities and Recommendations to International Donors

Bhutan presents numerous opportunities for international donors to engage in disaster risk reduction efforts actively. Given the country’s vulnerability to a range of natural hazards, collaborative endeavors in this sector are not only beneficial but imperative to enhance its resilience and safeguard its population. Here, we outline significant areas for international donors to consider:  

  • Improving Disaster Risk Understanding: An essential aspect of disaster risk reduction involves enhancing the comprehension of potential risks. Donors can contribute by supporting comprehensive research, hazard mapping, and vulnerability assessments, which are crucial for informed decision-making and effective mitigation strategies.  
  • Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction: Integrating disaster risk reduction principles across various sectors is a strategic approach. International donors can assist Bhutan in embedding these principles into development plans, policies, and strategies to ensure that resilience-building becomes an integral part of the country’s progress.  
  • Investing in DRR for Resilience: Donors have the opportunity to back projects focused on research and the implementation of locally tailored disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies, particularly in the context of earthquake risk mitigation. This encompasses endeavors such as promoting earthquake-resistant construction methods, conducting thorough evaluations of the structural integrity of vital buildings, retrofitting structures that fall short of safety standards, and providing training in the principles of “build-back-better” techniques. 
  • Strengthening Disaster Management Capabilities: Collaborative efforts to strengthen Bhutan’s disaster management capabilities can yield significant benefits. Donors can provide resources for training programs, capacity-building exercises, and the procurement of equipment, enabling Bhutan’s authorities to respond effectively during emergencies.  

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