Rise of the City

Ur­ban­iza­tion has its pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives as Bhutan is in­creas­ingly dis­cov­er­ing.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid The writer is a free­lance con­trib­u­tor for var­i­ous publi­ca­tions.

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.

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