City Lights Are Bright in Bhutan, but for How Long?

Posted by on Oct 15, 2014

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My colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I have come to Bhutan with plans to get off the grid. We are eager to set off on a trek through old-growth forests and remote villages, both for the sake of research and to disconnect. Ed and Paul plan to collect samples from ancient groves, and use tree ring patterns to establish the region’s climate history. Through an interpreter, I will talk to local farmers to learn more about their livelihoods and their views of environmental and social change. Ed and Paul are tree-ring scientists, Ed at Columbia University and Paul at Stockholm University; I am an anthropologist who co-directs the Climate and Society program at Columbia. We will be accompanied by Paul’s twelve-year-old son Jonas, who was last here when he was four. We look forward to traversing forested mountain slopes, with quiet trails and starry night skies.

GIS specialist in the Watershed Management Division reviews maps of areas where spruce has been harvested. (photo: Ben Orlove)

GIS specialist in the Watershed Management Division reviews maps of areas where spruce has been harvested. (photo: Ben Orlove)

We might be happy to get away, but the people here in Thimphu, the capital city, are glad to be connected to the grid. They welcome electricity as part of their lives and view it as a sign of their country’s progress. Committed to meeting basic human needs and to reducing poverty, Bhutan has extended social services, particularly education and health, throughout the country; the schools and clinics need electricity, and children cannot do homework without good lighting. The country’s strong environmental programs also depend on electricity, since they require computers and the internet. Ed, Paul and I spent an afternoon at the Watershed Management Division of the Department of Forests and Parks, where researchers use databases to select regions where they support communities to restore damaged forests and soils.

(photo Ben Orlove)

(photo Ben Orlove)

The four of us were invited out to dinner by a Bhutanese couple — a senior government official and his wife, a teacher — whom Ed and Paul have known since they began their research on climate history here over a decade ago. I spent most of the meal conversing with their daughter Selden and their niece Karma, both in their mid-twenties. They have studied in Bhutan and in India, and hope for professional careers, Selden as a physician and Karma in finance. For them, Thimphu is the best part of Bhutan, the only city in the country where they would consider living, because it is so developed. I asked them whether there is a word in Dzongkha, the national language, for “development.” Without hesitating, they told me that it was yargey. I asked them to tell me the key components of yargey. “Infrastructure. Communication. Electricity,” Karma said. She and Selden talked about their childhoods, when few people had landlines, and there was only one television channel. Now everyone has cell phones, and cable television brings many channels.

When I returned to my hotel after dinner, I turned on the television in my room for the first time. I found Bhutan Broadcast Service, a channel with transmissions in Dzongkha. Before cable television, Bhutan relied on programming in English or in the languages of India, particularly Hindi.

The announcers on Bhutan Broading Servicespeak Dzongkha and wear the traditional national dress rather than Western clothes. (photo: Ben Orlove)

The announcers on Bhutan Broading Servicespeak Dzongkha and wear the traditional national dress rather than Western clothes. (photo: Ben Orlove)

On Saturday, Ed, Paul, Jonas and I visited a local market, planning out the food purchases for our trip. I was struck by the number of people using cell phones, not just young educated people like Sonam and Karma.

We strolled through the city. Thimphu’s population has grown in recent years, with an influx of villagers who are attracted by the city’s bright lights and by its concentration of yargey. The tall streetlights that illuminate these roads caught my eye. They reminded me of a detail that Ed had mentioned to me of his early days in Bhutan. When he went out to dinner at night, he would bring a battery-powered headlamp with him, in case the power went out and he had to walk back in the dark. Power outages are much less frequent now. The office computers, televisions, and cell-phone towers work well.

Cell phone use is active around the main market in Thimphu and throughout the city. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Cell phone use is active around the main market in Thimphu and throughout the city. (photo: Ben Orlove)

But where does all this electricity come from? Bhutan relies heavily on hydropower, both to supply the growing national demand and to provide foreign exchange through exports of electricity to India. And glacier meltwater is a key component to this hydropower. The monsoons that provide the bulk of the precipitation are concentrated from May to September, and they vary from year to year. Glacier meltwater supplements this rainfall, particularly in the spring and fall, and evens out the fluctuations, providing water even in dry years. Climate change has caused the glaciers of Bhutan to shrink, calling into question the country’s ability to rely on hydropower.

A conference in Thimphu at the end of this month titled “Energy, Economy, Environment” will assess this question of glacier retreat, as well as other issues in the future of hydropower in Bhutan. There are a host of other concerns as well, particularly the country’s growing indebtedness to India, and the impacts of dam construction on Bhutan’s biodiversity—a matter of importance in a country committed to sustainability, and with a large ecotourism sector.

Billboard advertising the E3 conference in Thimphu 29 -31 October 2014. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Billboard advertising the E3 conference in Thimphu 29 -31 October 2014. (photo: Ben Orlove)

On our travels, Ed and Paul will gather data that will trace the history of droughts over the last several centuries and I will talk with farmers about water and glaciers. Jonas will form memories that will remain clearer than the dim recollections from his early childhood. We will attend the conference on our return and listen as Bhutanese discuss the possible futures of their country, balancing their hopes for development and the sober recognition of dwindling water resources.

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