July 3, 2017

Water shortage in a mountain country like Bhutan, blessed with abundant water resources with per capita mean annual flow availability of 109,000 cubic metres, the highest in the region, is probably the biggest ironies of our time.

There was a time when water, for drinking and irrigation, used to be channelled from sources such as rivers, streams, and springs. According to the National Health Survey 2012, the proportion of Bhutan’s population with access to improved drinking water source is 97.7 percent. However, in some rural parts of our country, people have to depend on rainwater for both drinking and irrigation.

Safe, adequate and accessible supply of drinking water is an essential component of primary healthcare. Assessment of rural drinking water quality carried out by the Royal Centre for Disease Control in 2012 showed that only 17 percent of stream water sources and 28 percent of spring water sources were safe for use as drinking water. Assurance of safe drinking water is still a major challenge in Bhutan.

Springs and streams are drying by the year. The residents of Laptsakha village in Punakha, Shumar, Gamung and Gonpung in Pemagatshel, Phangyul in Wangdue, and Kengkhar in Mongar are facing acute shortage of water. Some like 76-year-old Tshering of Laptsakha have to beg water from her neighbour. In Pemagatshel, a water tanker goes around twice every weekend to distribute water in settlements that are facing water shortage.

According to a study done by Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conversation and Environment Research, climate change, in addition to increasing anthropogenic activities, could impact both quality and quantity of water because climate change in the region is occurring at a greater speed than elsewhere. Untimely rainfall, extreme heat, flooding, landslides and windstorms have become common, leading to seasonal and local water scarcity for drinking and agriculture.

What we know is that study figures do not give us the real picture of water availability. It would be a mistake to rely on such information because we are talking about the livelihood of thousands of people. A study to establish to what extent climate change has affected water sources in the country is long overdue.

Going by a more recent rural water supply inventory, about 13,732 rural households across the country are facing drinking water problem. As the population grows and demand for infrastructure development with it, water shortage will become serious. When there is no water to drink and to farm, people from villages will be forced to migrate. Migration brings with it a varied set of problems. Urban poverty and goongtong are some of the challenges of the day facing the country.

Taping the country’s abundant resource is critically important, more than ever today. Failing to do so will be a shame on the part of the government. Citizens of the country with rich water resource cannot go begging for water to drink.