[HimalAndes Focused Conversation] Case 10 by Lungten Norbu: Water Conservation and Use for Sustainable Development in the Bhutan

Water Conservation and Use for Sustainable Development in the Bhutan

-Current Policies and Practices


Pema Wangdi

 Watershed Management Division, Department of Forests and Park Services, MoAF

 Lungten Norbu

Council for RNR Research of Bhutan ( CoRRB), MoAF, Thimphu


1          Introduction

Bhutan is a small country located in the eastern Himalaya with a geographical area of 38, 394 square km and a population of 745,600 people. The country has fragile mountainous ecosystem with elevations ranging from about 100m in the foothills to over 7500m towards the north. The dominant land cover is forest, making up 72.46% of the land area while shrubs account for 10.43%, cultivated agricultural land and meadows account for 2.93% and 4.10% respectively. Bhutan’s economy is still agrarian and developing,  and is highly dependent on agriculture, forest, water and other natural resources. Agriculture is the dominant sector providing livelihood, income and employment to 69% of the total population.  Bhutan is also rich in water resources mainly used for agriculture and hydropower production. The majority of electricity generated from hydropower is exported to India. Fueled by the development of hydropower, the industrial sector is also developing rapidly, thus exerting pressure on forest, land and water resources.

 2         Development Approach  

Bhutan’s modern development started in 1950s with pursuance of   the conventional patterns of rapid modernization in its policy. However, in the late 1960s, the Bhutanese perception of development philosophy slowly emerged as His Majesty the Third King started expressing views on the goal of development as “making the people prosperous and happy”. In the early 1970s, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan enunciated the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and GNH is more important than the Gross National Product (GDP). While both prosperity and happiness are the purpose of development, that hinges on the Buddhist philosophy of  middle-path approach, the economic development of the country cannot overshadow the social, spiritual and environmental wellbeing of the people. The concept of Green Economy for sustainable development and principles are also embedded in the GNH development philosophy and that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan mandates keeping a forest cover of at least 60 % of the land at all times.

3        Water Resources for Development


Water for a Buddhist in Bhutan is more an element of life than a mere infinite renewable resource. It is believed that the nature is composed of four elements (jung-wa-zhi) which are revered: soil (sa), water (chu), fire (mey) and air (luung).  As a revered abundant renewable resource, water has not only helped to sustain its cultural heritage but also helped in earning much needed capital for nation building, a true lifeline for Bhutan. Water has an explicit significance to ecological, social, cultural, economic and political spheres of Bhutan. However, with the development, besides agriculture, the economy is largely dependent on the development of hydropower generation and these hydropower plants contribute significantly to the overall GDP growth (17.61 %) of economy. With abundant resources, hydropower shall continue to be the backbone of the Bhutanese economy providing adequate energy for growth.

3.1       Water for hydropower

The presence of glaciers and numerous sub-watersheds leading to fast flowing rivers make up the entire country in addition to large area coverage of forest contribute to tremendous hydro-power potentials which are Bhutan’s natural comparative advantage. Bhutan has four major river basins-Amo Chu, Wang Chu, Punatsang Chu and Drangme Chu. The per capita availability of water per annum is more than 100000 m3. The total hydropower generation potential of the country is estimated at 23,765 megawatt (MW) and as of 2010 the totaled installed capacity for generation of hydropower was 1488 MW. Several hydropower projects are under construction or in pipeline to harness additional hydropower and achieve the target of total capacity 2020 ( Table 1) . The sustainable harvesting of these resources depends a lot on the health and quality of the country’s watersheds. There is a danger that watersheds will be degraded due to biotic and abiotic interferences resulting to land use change, pollution, and fragmentation of agriculture lands, that can  lead to low water retention capacity and low fertility, land slides and  floods.


Table 1: Hydropower Potential




Under construction


Total of all   categories

Total of all basins





















Source : National Road Map for Energy Security ( 2011)


3.2  Water for drinking and agriculture


The Water Policy 2008 accords the highest priority to drinking and irrigation water given the high incidences of water scarcity reported in the country. Water scarcity is attributed to drying of water sources and watersheds.  The water demand is increasing and it is projected that demand will increase from 25.6 million cubic meter in 2010 to 41.7 in 2020, and irrigation demand from 460 in 2010 to 498 million cubic meter in 2020. Integrated watershed management and water source protection programs will be the keys to sustain water use.

The irrigated land is less than 18 % of the total arable land and it is focused on rice cultivation. The horticulture crops and fruit crops in particular, are hardly irrigated although the agriculture export is dominated by the horticulture crops. The exiting irrigation schemes mostly of conventional open canal where water seepage and evaporation rates are very high resulting in an efficiency of only 30 to 40 %. Community management of water use is also practiced in the forms of  promoting water users associations and groups to facilitate group help and work in the  use and maintenance of water and water sources. Programs on water harvesting, efficient conveyance system, water storage structures, use of groundwater, and modern irrigation technologies (e.g. drip, sprinkler) are at infancy.


4          Policies and Practices

Many policies and legal instruments are in place aiming to conserve, develop and manage the water resources in the country.  The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan (2008) provides the overriding policy and legal framework for water resource management in the clause “maintenance of a minimum forest cover of 60 percent for perpetuity”. Similarly, many other documents emphasize on preservation of watersheds and use of the revenue for socio-economic development. For example, the Bhutan Water Policy 2003 recognizes “Hydropower development as a non-consumptive use of water, its significance as a renewable, non-polluting and clean form of energy and its potential for earning revenues from export of electricity and mandates to harness this potential for the socio-economic development in a sustainable manner”. The other enabling policies and documents to enable the practice of  sustainable water resources managements  are  “Bhutan: In Pursuit of Sustainable Development 2012, Bhutan Sustainable Hydropower Development Policy 2008, National Irrigation Policy 2012, A Roadmap for Watershed Management in Bhutan 2011, Water Regulation and Rules draft stage, Wang River Basin Management Framework 2009, Water Act of Bhutan 2011, National Forest Policy of Bhutan 2011, Bhutan Water Partnership (BhWP)”

One of the avenues of the development philosophy of “the Middle Path” of the National Sustainable Development Strategy is hydropower development based on integrated watershed management. Hydropower is made at affordable rates to reduce the non renewable and polluting sources of energy and thus drastically reduces the consumption of firewood. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) maintains and ensures the sustainable watershed management through catchment protection by promoting sustainable land use practices and nature conservation works and to support the availability of water for agriculture development and hydropower generation. To support the clause “Ensure that the hydropower development is in accordance with the sustainable development policy of the Royal Government, keeping in view the fragile mountain ecosystem of the country ‘’ (Hydropower Development Policy 2008), a minimum of 1% royalty energy revenue is to be made available on annual basis to MoAF for integrated sustainable water resources management including catchment protection and nature conservation. .



  1. Stefen Priesner – Gross National happiness-Bhutan view of development and its challenges –UNDP,Thimphu, Bhutan
  2. Bhutan Climate Summit 2011 Road Map for Energy Security in Bhutan
  3. Bhutan Climate Summit 2011: Impacts of Climate Change on Food Security.
  4. The Renewable Natural Resources Sector Adaptation Plan of Action (SAPA),  March 2013


Photo 1: Deep gorge



Photo 2:  Fast flowing river



Photo 3: National park wilderness upstream




Photo 4: Power with Monastry


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Comment by Alejandro Camino on October 9, 2013 at 8:25am

Wondering on impact of heated water downstream, below the hydropower plants, as well as of hydropower plants impacts on fish habitats? Are this issues being considered?

Alejandro Camino D.C.

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