Embracing the lessons of climate change

Embracing the lessons of climate change

As the world grapples with the impact of climate change, high-altitude farming communities in Togtogom, Bhutan, are not standing idle. They are rising to the challenge, demonstrating resilience, and crafting innovative solutions to combat the changing climate.

Across the picturesque landscapes of ToKtogom under Chukha dzongkhag (district), farmers are witnessing shifts in weather patterns, including higher temperatures and altered precipitation. While concrete data on climate and rainfall remains limited, farmers are noticing new possibilities. With the rise in temperature, they are finding success in cultivating low-altitude crops at higher elevations, introducing a ray of hope amidst climate uncertainties.

The expansion of maize and other low-altitude crops to higher altitudes is a clear indication of the climate’s transformation. The agriculture officer at ARDC Wengkher said that changes in climate patterns, including variations in temperature and precipitation, can impact traditional maize-growing regions. She added that in response to these shifts, farmers may be forced to move their cultivation to higher altitudes that offer more favorable climate conditions.

While the effects of climate change are evident, data to substantiate local claims remains limited. The absence of weather stations in some areas hampers the accurate recording of climate and rainfall patterns, making scientific analysis challenging.

However, the data from the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) has observed a clear trend in the Bongo region. The maximum temperature reached 30°C in 2019, soaring to 31°C in 2020.

Yet, these changes also raise concerns. While the expansion of maize offers promise for improved food security in places like Toktogom, it might affect the cultivation of traditionally grown cold-tolerant crops and encroach on natural habitats like forests and brush-lands. 

Globally, the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region faces rapid warming, according to a report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Even if the world manages to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, the HKHs are predicted to experience an increase of 0.3°C to 0.7°C above this threshold, posing threats to both mountain communities and their fragile ecosystems.

Additionally, according to research by APN Science Bulletin in the HKH regions, it shows that the future projection of some parts of Pakistan shows a 1.40c -3.7oc increase in the mean temperature by 2026 (Higher than the expected global average). 

In the case of Bhutan it says, “Over the last few years, the country experienced rapid change in temperatures, precipitations pattern and the arrival of late summer monsoon causing flood and landslide resulting in massive loss of farming.”

The research also shows that most of the farmers in Bhutan experienced a change in cropping practices such as alternative crops. New varieties have also been reportedly experienced at higher altitudes.

However, there is no research on the expansion of growth to higher elevations. An officer at ARDC Wengkhar, said, “Our farmers have been growing maize in high elevation, but we haven’t done any maize-related activities.” She added that they are trying to explore it in the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP).

“We will explore some good germ-plasm (High yielding varieties) for high elevation which can help our farmers in high elevation to have more varietal choice as well as to enhance their production,” an officer added.

The increased cultivation of maize in the high zone presents an important opportunity to improve maize production and overall food security for those of Toktogom. Nevertheless, the expansion of maize to higher altitudes might affect the cultivation of the cold-tolerant crops traditionally grown there and there are chances of expanding even high up what is known as brushland or forest.

However, report from the science bulletin on the climate change risk perceptions, vulnerability and adaptation in high-altitude farming regions of HKH shows that due to limited research on high-altitude farming regions regarding climatic changes makes it difficult to understand the exact picture.

Similarly, in Bhutan too, there is a shortage of research or data and correspondingly in-depth news on the expansion of any low- altitudes species in the higher elevation.

The Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer (DoA) of Chukha, Dhodo also shared that the growth of maize in Togtogom is in the initial stage, and that they have no concrete recorded data for the production of maize and other figures.

“We have transformed Togtogom into a center for asparagus commercial farming, and now every household is engaged in upland paddy cultivation. Previously, people were unable to grow paddy here, but now they are successfully doing it,” added the DoA.

In the face of escalating climate change impacts, communities in high-altitude regions are also taking proactive steps to adapt and safeguard their livelihoods.  Sonam Dawa, a 25-year-old farmer, has observed the changing climate through the growth of new crop varieties that were previously unsuitable for the region. To support people’s livelihoods, he shared the need for the government to provide seeds suitable for the changing conditions.  Furthermore, he urged concerned agencies to advocate for climate change awareness and conduct in-depth research to better understand the evolving climate patterns.

Another resident, Karma, a 68-year-old shared the impacts of climate change. However, he expressed concerns about potential future risks, particularly the threat of flooding. “As a precautionary measure, we are advising children not to litter and advocate against cutting trees, particularly around water sources.”

Lham, a 58-year-old also shared the observed rise in temperature, leading to the successful growth of low-altitude species like chilies, maize, and cucumbers in her village. However, she expressed concern about potential new diseases that could emerge with the changing climate. “To address this issue, we the communities are actively seeking solutions to mitigate such risks and protect their agricultural practices.”

As the sun sets on Togtogom, its residents stand united in their efforts to adapt to a changing world. Through a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation, they forge a path toward resilience in the face of an uncertain climate. Embracing the lessons of the past and the potential of the future, these communities inspire the world with their unwavering spirit and determination to safeguard their cherished lands and livelihoods.

This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation under the GEF Small Grants Programme UNDP implemented in partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan

Nidup Lhamo from Chukha