Climate Change Initiative
Bhutan is implementing the world’s largest climate change project. Does the country really need it?
Across the globe, climate change poses a serious threat to the environment as well as public health. Sadly, however, not all countries in the world are aware of its repercussions. The change in climate can affect entire communities but the people who live in impoverished conditions are the most susceptible. To tackle this pressing issue, the World Health Organization initiated an active program in which some seven countries, including Bhutan, are taking part to reduce health-related risks caused by climate change. In fact, despite being a small country, Bhutan has planned to embark on implementing the world’s largest climate change adaptation project.
Climate change can affect people’s health in many ways. For instance, it can induce extreme weather conditions which can have dire consequences on people’s health. Bhutan’s geographical location, i.e. the mountainous ecosystem of the eastern Himalayas, makes it vulnerable to a wide range of micro-climatic conditions within its three distinct climatic zones. The temperature of the southern belt remains even throughout the year and the zone receives considerable rainfall while the weather remains hot and humid. The central inner Himalayas have a temperate and cool climate and it receives average rainfall. Towards the northern region, there is less rainfall.
Due to climate change, however, the mean temperature has started to rise which brings forth a lot of health risks, directly and indirectly. For instance, heat waves can threaten the vulnerable population while runoffs caused by storms can disturb the sewage systems. This can affect almost
all aspects of public health.
Bhutan has been a victim of floods for a long time. It is home to approximately 2,674 glacial lakes, out of which some 24 are deemed potentially dangerous. Since the late twentieth century, a change in climate has resulted in the warming and recession of Bhutan’s glaciers which are a significant renewable source of water for the rivers in the country.
A rise in temperature has led to the melting of these glaciers, resulting in frequent and intense glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), thus repeatedly exposing the local population to diseases and healthrelated risks. Moreover, climate change also leads to flash floods and landslides during the monsoon season.
There are certain key health concerns associated with climate change in Bhutan which are escalating with the passage of time. As a result of GLOFs, vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria and waterborne diseases, contracted by either drinking or coming into direct contact with contaminated water, are a major concern. The rise in temperature has especially convoluted the control of vector-borne diseases in the country. For instance, during the flood season, the people of Bhutan are exposed to two types of malaria – Plasmodium falciparum, which is more severe in nature and accounts for 30-60 percent of the cases and Plasmodium vivax which is behind more than 50 percent of the cases. Additionally, Bhutan is facing the rising threat of dengue as well due to climate change. With the first case of dengue being reported in 2004, Bhutan currently faces this disease as an endemic. The problem particularly worsens during the monsoons.
As for water-borne diseases, they are mainly caused by the overflow of sewerage water and diseases like diarrhea have become a major threat to the local population. Owing to these factors, the government of Bhutan deemed it necessary to strengthen the capacity to identify and contain climate change related health outcomes in the country.
Funded through the Least Developed Countries Fund ( LDCF) and administered by the Global Environment Facility ( GEF) with an investment of US $ 11,491,200, the project entitled ‘Addressing the Risks of Climate-induced Disasters through Enhanced National and Local Capacity for Effective Actions (2014-2017)’ will be the world’s largest climate change adaption project.
Jointly signed between the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Gross National Happiness Commission and the National Environment Commission of Bhutan, the project aims at keeping the people and the concerned authorities wellinformed about the dangers associated with climate change. Moreover, the project also intends to provide a better surveillance of the environmental changes taking place in the country so that the government can issue warnings and take preventive measures early on to minimize the damage.
One of the objectives of the project is to train healthcare providers and equip them with the required tools to handle health issues caused due to climate change. The project identified certain areas of adaptive capacity so that those areas could be targeted to make the project effective and impactful. These include the collection of metrological and surveillance data, as Bhutan has very limited metrological data and sparsely located metrological stations.
Second, the project aims to tap more resources as there is a dearth of human and financial resources for integrating climate change risks into all levels of health activities.
Third, the project intends to mainstream climate change by incorporating the phenomenon into national programs that do not take climate change into account at present. For example, climate change awareness will be introduced in the National Vector-borne Disease Control Program ( VDCP), ARI and diarrheal disease programs and water and sanitation programs.
Lastly, the project aims to create coordination by introducing a new environmental health program in the Ministry of Health to coordinate and implement climate and health initiatives.
The program will also focus on taking useful measures to minimize the risk of floods and landslides in Phuentsholing and the neighboring industrial estate of Pasakha. Subsequently, it will make the community more resilient by designing and implementing water harvesting, storage and distribution systems in some villages. Under the said initiative, it is also expected that the quality, analysis and dissemination of information regarding climate change will be improved in a timely and reliable fashion.
As for the outcomes of the project, Bhutan expects to increase awareness and capacity of health workers and the community to tackle climate-related health issues as early as possible. What is more, the project will assist the government in planning and sustaining its Vector-borne Disease Control Program. Whether or not Bhutan succeeds in achieving the goals set by the program remains to be seen.