Rise of the City
Urbanization has its positives and negatives as Bhutan is increasingly discovering.
More than four decades after urbanization started in Bhutan, the country’s demographic pattern appears to be following the global trend. However, unlike other countries where the establishment of towns and cities was the result of economic opportunities, urbanization in Bhutan was based on administrative centers. The process of town planning in Bhutan started in 1974 when a central town planning committee was formed to guide urban development. Urban planning in the past was not successful as no donors were keen on supporting infrastructure development although assistance was given for water supply and sanitation
systems. Support for Bhutanese urban development started flowing in after the 1996 UN Habitat Conference.
It is for this reason that Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, has transformed from a beautiful little town into a modern, concrete city. The urbanization expansion has come at a cost and has created rapid environmental degradation in the region. The resulting climate change is putting the city at a greater risk. In fact, Thimpu is one of the world’s 15 cities most vulnerable to the impact of global warming, according to a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based research organization.
The city sprawls down steep slopes between altitudes of 2,248 metres and 2,648 metres. Thimphu’s sharp inclines – many with gradients greater than 30% – make the city particularly vulnerable to landslides. Heavy rainfall and sudden cloudbursts, which increase the risk of landsides, will become more frequent as a result of future climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 assessment report.
Thimphu’s urban development began at a slow pace in 1961, with the launch of Bhutan’s first Five-Year Plan. But it was not until the kingdom opened its doors to the outside world in the 1970s, that the process of urbanization really started to take off. Since then, there has been considerable construction in the city center and suburban development has mushroomed. According to Bhutan’s National Statistics Bureau, Thimphu had a population of 104,214 in 2010, and is growing at a rate of 1.3 per cent every year. Thimphu will continue to expand in the future, as migration from villages to the city becomes ever more popular.
Sadly, however, the environmental impact of this urban expansion is visible to anyone who goes to Bhutan, particularly to Thimpu. Previously, ecologically rich wetlands were interspersed with the city’s buildings near the swimming pool complex and the Changlimithang Stadium, south of the sewage treatment plant in Babesa, near the cremation ground by the river and next to the settlement of Langjophaka. Today, most of the wetlands have been converted into residential areas, shopping complexes and sports and recreational spaces. Only a few remain, but they too are at risk of disappearing.
Predictably, urbanization has had a negative effect on flora and fauna. Wood snipes, once common in Thimphu, have not been seen since 1999, according to ecologist Rebecca Pradhan from Bhutan’s Royal Society for Protection of Nature. Waste management has always been a problem in Thimphu, but the situation has deteriorated with the expanding population. According to Thimphu City Corporation records, the capital of Bhutan produced about 18,000 tonnes of waste in 2009, which means almost 50,000 kilograms every day. The waste-management system is already struggling to cope, but it is estimated that, by 2020, some 81,000 kilograms of waste will be produced every day.
In 2009, local waste comprised mainly organic materials, as well as some paper and plastic. But now electronic waste – particularly refrigerators, computers and mobile phones – is being dumped out in the open along with other waste, increasing the risk of dangerous chemicals leaking into the soil and the downstream water supplies.
With more and more Bhutanese settling in Thimphu, the numbers of vehicles are increasing too. Of the 53,382 vehicles in the country, 29,139 are in Thimphu and major cities in the west, according to the Royal Bhutan Police Traffic Division. Higher vehicle numbers have led to a higher demand for road construction in the fragile mountains and increased traffic on the 11-kilometre Thimphu-Babesa expressway has destroyed many bird habitats. The ongoing river diversion work on the Thimphu River has also resulted in further destruction of bird habitats.
According to the National Environment Commission, Thimphu and the town of Phuentsholing on the border with India has experienced deteriorating air quality over the years. Daily air pollution levels now often exceed WHO guidelines. Sources of air pollution include combustion of biomass and fossil fuels, industrial emissions, dust from unpaved roads, new construction sites and bitumen heating for road construction.
Houses in Thimphu are poorly designed when it comes to storing heat during the cold winters. Improving building design could save energy and money in the long run. If building designs are improved, energy consumption could be drastically reduced. For example, in an average household, windows account for 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the total heat loss. Well-designed, large glass windows could save energy through the benefits of passive solar heating. While the initial cost of installing double-glazed windows is high, reducing energy loss by up to 18% would eventually pay the cost for itself. Advanced insulation materials can reduce the energy consumption of buildings by as much as 90%, according to architect Herbert Girardet.
Rapid urban growth has already created pressures on services like drinking water, sanitation and waste disposal. This has also led to the deterioration of air quality and proliferation of squatter settlements in areas with a sensitive environment. Today, Bhutan is in dire need of planned urban development that will not only help mitigate rural to urban migration but will also create opportunities to meet rising expectations for commercial opportunities.