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FEATURE - Climatic cracks of doom surface in green Bhutan
PUNAKHA DZONG, Bhutan |
PUNAKHA DZONG, Bhutan (Reuters) - For centuries this monastic fortress in Bhutan's Himalayas has sheltered ancient Buddhist relics and scriptures from earthquakes, fires and Tibetan invasions.
Now the lamas here may have met their match -- global warming.
At least 53 million cubic metres of glacier melt is threatening to break the banks of a lake upstream in the Himalayan peaks and spark a "mountain tsunami" in Punakha valley.
The government is pressing the lamas, so far unsuccessfully, to transport relics to a nearby hilltop for safekeeping. Massive flooding could inundate these valleys, which hold about a tenth of Bhutan's population, by 2015.
"Pollution has disturbed our deities," Leki Dorji, a red-robed lama, said in a courtyard as monks chanted mantras. "It's for that the rains have not come on time, that we have not had snow for five years."
Bhutan, one of the earth's greenest and most isolated countries and one of the few states that absorbs more carbon than it emits, faces the impact of a rise in global temperatures despite environmental polices lauded the world over.
It is not just about holy relics, but the livelihood of a nation dependent on Himalayan glacier-fed rivers which are also the life-blood for hundreds of millions of people downstream in the plains of South Asia.
"It has not been easy to conserve our ecological balance," Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley told Reuters in an interview. "It has come at a cost. We could have been much richer."
"Now we are as vulnerable and exposed as other countries."
For the monks it may be angry deities. But science says the threat to Punakha is due to rising global temperatures melting the world's "third pole" of Himalayan glaciers.
The government has identified 26 glacier lakes in Bhutan at risk of what is called Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, when accumulated melt breaks its moraine banks. Scientists say that glaciers in Bhutan are retreating by around 30 metres a year.
Many lamas in Punakha Dzong -- both a monastery and a fortress, and once Bhutan's capital -- believe deities will ultimately protect relics from whatever extreme weather can throw at them.
The monastery was damaged by a similar glacier outburst in 1994. Then monks gathered to pray for their treasures' safety, especially Bhutan's most precious relic -- the Rangjung Kharsapani, the self-created image of the deity of compassion.
At least 20 people in the valley were killed them. The next torrent of water would be three times greater.
"We hope to convince the monks to move the relics. If the next lake bursts, you can imagine what it would trigger," Thinley said. "Our valley, settlements, or farms would be swept away."
Bhutan, with under 700,000 people in an country roughly the size of Switzerland, has a constitution that guarantees 60 percent of its land must be forested. Air pollution hardly exists. There are only 33,000 vehicles.
THREATS TO AN ENVIRONMENTAL SHANGRI-LA
But there are other cracks in this environmental Shangri-la. The government says global warming will soon not just impact its glaciers, but threaten its efforts to develop hydroelectric power and also damage crops with erratic weather.
After an initial increase, melting will eventually lead to reduced river flows, threatening plans to increase hydroelectric power from 1,500 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts within a decade.
"Hydroelectric power is the backbone of our economy," said Sonam Yangley, director general of the National Environment Commission.
Global warming is already blamed for increasing erratic monsoons and snows, making it hard for crops. Warming has led some farmers to grow oranges in Himalayan valleys.
Pests like rodents are appearing higher up in the Himalayas. Cases of lowland diseases like malaria and dengue are increasing.
"For agriculture, erratic weather is the biggest challenge," said Agricultural Minister Pema Gyamtsho. "Rainfall doesn't come to May, then there is a torrent for three days and causes a lot of damage. Then we have a spell of drought."
Bhutan plans to mitigate these risks. But that can be expensive for a nation with a $1 billion economy. The country already depends on official aid for nearly half its budget.
Just take the Thorthormi glacier threatening the monastery. Some 300 workers hiked with yaks for 10 days to drain the lake. Two lakes are separated by a thinning 30-metre moraine. If they join, the combined force will spill down the valley.
Working at more than 4,000 metres above sea level, workers drained around 0.86 centimetres, half what they aimed. The project cost $7 million, and that is just one glacier among hundreds.
Many Bhutanese feel hard done by. Their government has made more efforts to lead the ways with environment policies, but its very success has often made its own problems ignored.
"We hope to get due compensation for increasing forest cover," said Gyamtsho, referring to the spread in forests from more than 60 percent to 72 percent of the country within a decade.
Bhutan says it will commit at Copenhagen to being carbon neutral. But unless money is spend on mitigation, the economic sacrifices that Bhutan has made to stay green may be in vain.
"Seven million dollars is quite a lot of money for Bhutan," said Claire Van der Vaeren, representative of the United Nations Development Programme, partly funding efforts to drain the lake.
"But certain funding windows are not available to Bhutan because it is doing well with emissions and forest cover. In a way, it is a victim of its own success."
In Punakha, the monks still refuse to move their relics, hopeful their faith means they will survive any "tsunami".
"They say the dzong survived because of the relic," said Thinley. "We'll see if they will stay put."
(Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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