The high annual rate of land degradation has assumed alarming proportions, draft report
Draft Bhutan Environment Outlook, 2012: It will only take 72 years to degrade all the land in the country, if land degradation continues at the current rate, the draft Bhutan Environment Outlook, 2012, states.
Land is degrading at 1.4 percent annually, the draft outlook by the National Environment Commission states, and the area of degraded forest in Bhutan has increased by more than seven times, from 32,356 hectares (ha) in 2004 to 236,700ha in 2007. “Land degradation is at 1.5 percent a year, and reforestation is at about 0.11 percent a year,” the draft states.
“This leaves a gap of about 1.4 percent annual degradation rate, which is quite alarming.”
Land degradation is defined as the decline in its capacity to sustain agro-forestal and other biotic production and diversity due to human activity. About 70 percent of Bhutan is forest cover, and less than three percent is cultivated agricultural land.
According to the draft, rapid socio-economic development and increased population lead to intervention of immediate and ad hoc plans and, in most cases, such plans are “detrimental to land in terms of sustainability.”
The draft outlook reported that, each year, a large amount of prime agricultural and government reserved forest (GRF) land has been converted to accommodate various developmental activities.
Records with the land commission and the agriculture ministry showed that, in 2007-08, about 470.8ha of prime agricultural land was converted to “other” forms of land use; in 2008-09, Bhutan lost 773.145ha of prime agricultural land.
“This translates to 193 and 380 times more conversion just in a year, compared to the average 1997–2007 figure of 16 ha,” the draft pointed out.
In the past three years, a total of 22,235.34 acres of GRF land have been allotted for construction of schools, hospitals, rural electrification and farm roads. Of the total GRF land allotment for 2008-11, about 45 percent were allotted for construction of transmission lines and roads. Mining and quarrying, pasture development and power projects, it stated, have also contributed in reduction of total forest cover over the years.
Among the parks, Thrumshingla National Park has lost the maximum GRF land, more than 600 acres, to road construction and power transmission lines from July 2008 to June 2011.
As a result of this conversion, the average annual change in forest cover, during 2010-11, is about 0.11 percent of the total forest cover, which amounts to about 341.6km2 and is bigger than the previous two years.
“It is apparent that loss of agriculture land is likely to escalate in the near future, with development penetrating in all major settlements and establishment or expansion of urban areas,” the draft stated.
Bhutan, which, in the past few years, has begun to look like a huge construction site, given the boom in construction industry, has also seen an alarming increase in timber demand.
The draft highlighted that a 2011 study by the department of forests and park services found that, in the next five years, about a 1.85Mcft demand-supply gap of timber would confront the market.
This means, increased pressure will be exerted on forest resources to meet the demand for wood, and “therefore, extraction of wood by “ad hoc” means from forests is possible to meet the high demand,” the draft states.
“An estimated 54.4 percent of the country’s forest is unsuitable for timber production, downsizing the productive area to only 16.8 percent of the total area,” the draft report stated.
It was also found that the rate of removal of forest products today exceeds the rate of replacement, causing early exhaustion of forest stocks.
Bhutan has also lost its biodiversity at an increasing rate to increased infrastructure development. Many hydropower projects, road construction, mining and quarrying pose serious threats to Bhutan’s flora and fauna, the draft states.
There are 67 mines and quarries, operating on a total land area of 1404.94ha in the country today. Mining operations have direct physical impact on the landscape, because cutting of slopes and excavation work cause changes in slope that may lead to soil erosion, increased run-off, and exposure to potentially reactive natural materials.
Bhutan’s economy grew at an average of 8.7 percent year between 2005 and 2010, and was ranked second in South Asia and ninth in the world. In 2011, Bhutan had a total road network of 8,381.61km, almost double 2007’s figure of 4,349km. In the Tenth Plan alone, around 4,444km of farm roads were cut across the country.
While the main water pollutants are surface drainage, grey water sullage from domestic households, and uncontrolled seepage or overflow from septic tanks and pipes entering watercourses in urban centres, Bhutan’s water resources are still in a very good state, the draft outlook stated.
“Air quality in Bhutan at the moment is relatively pristine,” the draft states. However, sources of pollution are also on the rise, and the outlook recommends that it may be timely to revise emission standards.
National Environment Commission secretary, Dr Ugyen Tshewang, said all activities take place within the threshold of the strict guiding principles that have been put in place. “We take pride in our environment’s state and our main concern is to make this sustainable,” he said. “Infrastructure development, like roads, is also of paramount importance to our people.”
By Sonam Pelden | Thimphu