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Forest fires burning up Bhutan’s wilderness

To mark International Forests Day we look at how the world’s most heavily forested country is facing an uphill battle to control raging fires, fuelled in part by economic growth and mining
<p>Forest fires threaten Bhutan&#8217;s future in many ways [image by Nima Wangdi]</p>

Forest fires threaten Bhutan’s future in many ways [image by Nima Wangdi]

At the UN climate summit in Paris last year, Bhutan was lauded for its “ambitious pledge” to make it the most “carbon negative” country in the world.  A large part of this climate pledge was made possible because Bhutan’s forests absorb three times more CO2 emissions than its population create. Over 80% of Bhutan’s land area is forested and more than 51% fall under protected areas, according to the department of forests. Furthermore, Bhutan’s Constitution mandates that 60% of the country will remain under forest cover forever.

Unfortunately this positive contribution to tackling global climate change is currently under threat, as raging forest fires eat up Bhutan’s forest cover. The ecological devastation they leave behind has many consequences, from destroying infrastructure, to threatening wildlife habitats, and even endangering Bhutan’s run-of-the-river hydropower plants – a major pillar of its energy, financial and environment policy.

Kinley Tshering, an official for forest fire management program at the department of forest and park services, estimates that on average more than 10,000 acres of forest cover is lost to fire every year,  with some forest fires lasting for days, or even weeks. Tshering,  is currently estimating how many thousand acres of forests Bhutan has lost during several major forest fires reported in the last few weeks alone. The total figure will only be known after carrying out a ground survey, he told thethirdpole.net.

Fighting hill fires can be a daunting task [image by Nima Wangdi]
Fighting hill fires can be a daunting task [image by Nima Wangdi]
Most forest fires are caused by human activities, Tshering said. This could be due to burning of agricultural waste, children playing with flammable materials, smokers disposing of burning matches or cigarettes, picnickers, cattle herders, road side workers or hikers making camp fires and even electrical short circuits. Such a vast range of reasons means that officials often find it hard to identify the culprit behind a particular fire.

The department of forest recently issued a fine to the Bhutan Power Corporation after a major forest fire burned up areas above Chuzom and Paro.It was found that the fire started due to short circuit from power transmission lines. The fire lasted for over a week, and it took more than 500 men to finally contain it.

Long term impacts

Most people are unaware of the long-term impacts of forest fires on the environment, rivers and the ecosystem. While forest fires provide some short term benefits for seed germination and pasture development, the negative effects are longer lasting. Unlike plants and shrubs, which will grow back relatively quickly, forest ecosystems take several years to recover, Kinley Tshering added. Forest fires have damaged Bhutan’s rich biodiversity, wiping out specific species of rare orchids according to an article in the journal Ecology, Environment and Conservation.

Tshering said that forest fires also damage the soil stability, leading to soil erosion and increasing surface run off and silt in rivers. The heavier silt load in rivers damages the turbine blades and affects power production of hydropower projects, which are the major income generator for Bhutan.

Forest officials in Wangdue district said that few months after a forest fire in Athang village, a 7 kilometre stretch of farm road collapsed due to soil erosion. This phenomenon has been reported from several other parts of Bhutan. For a country that is composed of seven mountain valleys, road construction is hard work, and the destruction of roads comes at a high cost to the residents of the most remote areas, who are often the least economically secure.

Bhutan’s mountainous terrain makes both pinpointing the cause of forest fires difficult, as well as fighting the fires. The rocky terrain means that fire fighters are at risk from loose stones tumbling down from above. Almost all the fires start from the base of the mountain and spread uphill, where lack of water becomes an added problem. The heavy equipment, plus protective clothing and boots, adds to the strain of men having to climb mountains to fight the fire.

Bhaskar Singh Karky, resource economist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal, added that forest fires do not respect national boundaries. Residents of surrounding countries of India and China are also affected. Even if the fire may be contained within the borders, the smoke, with all its deadly effects, is not.

Economic growth adds fuel to fire

One of the unspoken reasons for the increase in forest fires is the rapid urbanisation and economic growth of Bhutan. In the last decade Bhutan’s GDP has grown unevenly, but at an average of 7% every year. A large number of trees have been felled for timber, both to sell, as well as to build houses for newly prosperous households. The annual report of the Natural Resources Development Corporation – Bhutan’s major supplier of construction material – stated that it produced 1.604 million cubic feet of timber in 2014. This figure does not include the timber cut for the building of personal houses.

It is not just timber that is being felled in Bhutan – with all the dangers of possible forest fires that such activities raise. Mining has expanded dramatically over the years. In 2008-2012 there were 33 mines and 48 quarries either leased or operating in Bhutan, and between 2009 to 2010 alone, the growth rate of the sector was 9%. Much of this activity was due to the demand generated from Bhutan’s mega hydropower projects, which are scheduled to continue to be built for years to come. Ten projects are scheduled to be completed by 2020, to generate 10,800 MW of power out of an estimated 23,760 MW that Bhutan could produce. Mining activities, carried out as they are within, or near, forested areas, present a constant threat of sparking off forest fires.

Volunteers throughout Bhutan planted 108,000 saplings to celebrate the birth of their prince [image by Nima Wangdi]
Volunteers throughout Bhutan planted 108,000 saplings to celebrate the birth of their prince [image by Nima Wangdi]
Saving the future

Bhutan is not the only place where forest fires have started to occur more often, and part of the reason may be due to climate change. With more fluctuations in weather drier summers make the forests more vulnerable. But while Bhutan can do little about global climate patterns beyond making sure to fulfil its climate pledges, it can try to cut down human causes of forest fires. For this reason Bhutan’s forest department is primarily relying on an advocacy and awareness campaign to inform its citizens on how to avoid accidentally starting forest fires. The forest fire management section under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests conducted a door-to-door forest fire prevention campaign in the western districts of Thimphu, Wangdue and Punakha. The citizens in the area were briefed on three key issues of responsibility, burning things safely and penalties. In addition they were also given education materials.

It is too early to tell whether such campaigns will have an effect, but Bhutan also has a long history of planting trees. The Natural Resources Development Corporation, having produced a great deal of timber, also invests in afforestation and reforestation activities. In 2014 it spent 6.2 million Bhutanese Ngultrum (USD 92,000) on such activities.

Tree planting has been promoted as an emblem of national pride, and in 2015 a group of 100 volunteers broke the world record of most trees planted in an hour. And on 6 March 2016, on the occasion of the birth of Bhutan’s new crown prince, Bhutan went on another tree planting spree, planting 108,000 saplings across all 20 of its districts.

These initiatives give hope that the mountain slopes of Bhutan will remain green, and keep the forest fires at bay.