People of five chiwogs of Shumar gewog in Pemagatshel are suffering from acute drinking water shortage.
Dagor, Goenpoong-Shali, Nangkhor, Bartseri and Khotakpa-Yalang have been facing acute drinking water shortage for decades now. Though every household has a water-tap constructed by the gewog administration, the taps run dry.
From the five chiwogs, Goenpoong-Shali chiwog is the worst affected by the drinking water shortage. Winter means fetching water from a stream and searching for water sources.
Tendrel Wangdi, 77, from Shumar gewog never imagined that people would face water shortage in a mountainous country like Bhutan, which is blessed with abundant water sources.
He said there was a time when water for drinking and irrigation was channeled from sources such as rivers, streams, and springs. “However, now people have to depend on rainwater for both drinking and irrigation.”
“I still remember the river that runs just below my home which was also our water source those days,” he said, “Now people have to depend on rainwater and water tankers.”
Tendrel Wangdi said water sources are drying up mainly due to the increasing number of consumers and the proliferation of settlements. “Initially, one water source was enough for the entire village but now due to the increasing population, this one water source is divided into more than 20 other sources.”
Similarly, Sonam Tshomo, 36, from Gamung village said villagers are currently walking more than an hour to fetch water from a nearby stream, while some are even spending up to Nu 200 to buy a drum of water from those who own a vehicle.
Villagers are frustrated with the water problem especially during the winter. While the villagers have raised the issue several times, they say no solution has been provided.
Though the country has been blessed with the highest per capita of water availability of around 109,000 cubic meters every year, shortage of water, meanwhile, due to dying up of water sources has become common across the country.
Although about 98% of the households in the country have access to drinking water and the reliability of water supply stands at 81%, according to the Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (PHCB) 2017.
The report states that about 98.6% of the total households have access to drinking water as of 2017 compared to 84.5% in 2005. “Among the dzongkhags, Thimphu has the highest proportion of households with access to improved water sources while Gasa has the lowest.”
Thimphu with 4,591 households and Chukha with 2,761 households have the largest number of households without reliable water supply and Pemagatshel have 1,445, as per the PHCB 2017. The report also shows that 69% of the total households without reliable water sources are in rural areas.
Bhutan Living Standard Survey (BLISS) 2017 also states that 99.5% of the people depend on improved drinking water access.
Goenpoong-Shalichiwog Tshogpa, Chogyal, said the water shortage in his chiwog has been a problem for a long time. “Though three governments have come to power, the problem persists.”
Villagers have searched for alternative water sources, but most are located uphill or on terrain which are not suitable for pipes.
Chogyal said even if the authorities concerned manage to find a suitable water source, with the increasing demand, the water source would dry up.
Though the Dzongkhag administration has been working on providing water by maintaining water sources, finding other water sources is a major problem.
“People in my village still fetch water on their back and store in water tanks,” said the Tshogpa.
According to the Rural Water Supply Inventory 2014, with the increasing population, infrastructure development and improved livelihood, demand for water has increased by many folds.
One of the reasons the villagers do not have access to drinking water is because of the geography. Most of the settlements are on the slopes and terrain where water runs below the settlement making it difficult for them to collect it.
However, every household has water taps constructed by the gewog and pipelines are available at every doorstep. Except that they are dry.
The Tshogpa said providing 24/7 water supply to every household has been the flagship agenda in the 12th plan. “We are hopeful that the government would resolve the water crises in the chiwog.”
The Dzongkhag administration has already tried different alternatives to solve the issue but as of now water shortage continues.
Back in 2016, a WHO-funded pump project was commissioned to deliver water to Zobel and Shumar gewogs from Khonmari stream. It was supposed to benefit 10,000 people but the Nu 100mn government-funded project failed.
Shumar gup, Sangay Chophel said, “Water shortage is increasing especially in Shumar gewog, maybe due to gypsum mining and blasting taking place in Khotakpa in Shumar gewog.”
According to him, in the 12th Plan, they have proposed to bring water from a source located at Khaling.
Similarly, Pemagatshel Dzongrab, Passang Dorji said that yearly, the water sources are drying up which leads to decrease in water supply.
The Dzongrab said the problem especially exists in Shumar gewog and the Khonmari project could not solve the water issue in Shumar as the gewog was not reflected in the Khonmari project but it did benefit Zobel.
Meanwhile, the dzongkhag has already allocated budget for the plan.
Pemagatshel Dzongkhag Engineer, Sonam Jamtsho said the dzongkhag administration has also submitted a list of places which are mostly affected by water shortage.
Since there are more numbers of pipelines in the two gewogs, pumped water is not sufficient for the two gewogs, Zobel and Shumar.
Officials from the Dzongkhag visit the site twice a week and supply water.
Additionally, he said the idea of supplying water from the source at Khaling was once discussed before the Khonmari project, but later it was not implemented since Khaling is far from Pemagatshel and is going to cost a lot.
The officials are therefore exploring ways to bring in water from a place called Chumkhar.
The watershed management division is also currently working on a nationwide scoping study of water sources drying in Bhutan under the strategic programs for climate resilience where many stakeholders are involved.
The department has mapped all the water sources and identified those that need immediate intervention.
Further, the department monitors the selected sites through detailed hydrogeological survey and biophysical analysis of the area. The department will be releasing a report on the empirical evidence on the causes and interventions that could be carried out.
If the government does not find an alternative to solve the issue of drinking water shortage, it will be a slow death of villages and the only hope villagers are left with is to wait for the government to find them alternatives to solve the issue.
The story was funded by the Content Development Grant of the Department of Information and Media
Jigme Wangchen from Shumar, P/gatshel