Weathering poverty

Well it didn’t snow last night. And it didn’t rain enough. But it’s still overcast. And I’m hopeful.

Part of my excitement yesterday was because I was sure it would snow in my village, which, at about 2800 m, is higher than Thimphu. But it didn’t snow there either. The light drizzle was barely enough to “settle the dust” one uncle told me. He and his neighbours can’t begin to prepare their fields till enough water seeps into the parched earth.

Throughout our country, most of our farmers are completely dependent on rain water. This makes farming unpredictable and unproductive. And breeds unseen poverty in our villages.

Rhythm of the falling rain

It’s drizzling outside. I hope it rains. In fact I hope it snows. We need the precipitation.

Our rivers have dwindled. And can barely turn the hydropower turbines that generate electricity – and revenue – for our country.

But, more importantly, our farmers have not been able to cultivate their land. Without water, their land is parched and cannot be tilled; cannot be prepared to plant potatoes. If potatoes are not planted in time, the potato yield will be bad. And potatoes are the only source of money for many of our farmers.

So I’m thoroughly enjoying the soft, percussive sound of the rain on my roof. But I hope it stops, as the rain turns to snow.

First fire

This forest fire, above YHS and Tandin Nye, was the Thimphu’s first this winter. Thankfully, it was put out quickly.

Brand Bhutan?

Branding matters. Our country is seen as Shangri-la; our environment pristine; and our people preoccupied with GNH. We enjoy a premium brand.

But what’s happening to the environment in Shangri-la is definitely not GNH.

I took this photograph of Thimphu on my way to work this morning. What we breathe is not good for our health. And not good for our image.

Branding is difficult. And expensive. Let’s protect what we have.

Treasure hunting

I met Tobgay today. He’s nine years old and has just completed Class II in Dechechencholing MSS. He was rummaging through my negibour’s waste.

In fact, Tobgay was recycling garbage. He was collecting various tins and bottles, and plastics and metals to sell to a scrap dealer in town. His part-time work would fetch him Nu 5 per kg for iron, steel and certain plastics; Nu 1 for every beer bottle; and Nu 30 per kg for aluminum cans. That’s easy money, he confided, because there’s always plenty of recyclable garbage.

Yesterday he and his friends earned Nu 130. They spent most of that money playing video games and eating. But today he plans to be a bit more cautious – he wants to buy a pair of jeans.

Thimphu’s garbage is screaming for better waste management. And the message is loud and clear: reduce, reuse, and recycle – we can’t afford not to!


I am excited about the prime minister’s assurances that Thimphu will be one of the cleanest cities in the world by 2011. But I am not excited about how he plans to do it.

It appears that the government has decided to buy a waste incinerator capable of burning 40 tonnes of waste at a time. It should reconsider its decision.

Incinerators must burn continuously. So they require a constant supply of garbage. And the bigger the incinerator, the larger will be the amount of garbage needed to keep it running. As a result, we may need to produce more, not less garbage. This is not good waste management.

Incinerators pollute. The pollution will spread throughout our country and to our neighboring countries. Plus the smoke, gas and ash produced by incinerators contain dioxins that can cause cancer. This is not responsible.

Incinerators are expensive. In 2004, THPA paid Nu 4 million for a 2.4 tonne incinerator. Guess how much a 40 tonne incinerator would cost? Upwards of Nu 600 million! This, it seems, is what representatives of a Malaysian firm told the government when they visited Bhutan earlier this year to market their product. This is not cheap.

A much more simple, responsible and cheaper solution to our waste problem is to recycle it.

A businessman has already proposed to establish a recycling plant. This is his plan: he collects waste that has been sorted, washes and compresses it, and sells it as raw material to companies – in Bhutan or abroad – who manufacture products from recycled material.

Who sorts the garbage? That’s the catch – we, the producers of garbage do. Waste must be sorted at the source before it can be used by the recycler. But the good news is that Thimphu’s residents are willing to do so. At least, this was the experience in the mid-1990’s when NEC briefly tried a recycling project. Sorting our own waste teaches us to reduce consumption, reuse packaging and recycle – the all important 3R’s of waste management. Sorting our waste also teaches us to respect the environment. That’s GNH.

And there’s more good news: most of our garbage is recyclable, at least 70% of it is. That would mean that only 30% of our waste would need to go into landfills. And that would mean smaller, safer, cheaper and better-managed landfills would do for Thimphu.

How much would a recycling plant cost? About Nu 3 million. The government should finance the plant (donors are already willing) and subsidize its operating costs for the 10 years it would take before he can start turning a profit. In case you’re wondering, there’s a lot of money to be made from the sale of used plastics, glass, PET bottles and metals. Many companies use recyclable waste as raw material to produce finished goods. So the recycling plant would basically compact the waste so that it becomes easier and cheaper to transport.

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? It is.

Yes, let’s make Thimphu the cleanest city in the world by 2011. But let’s do it responsibly.

(photo of incinerator from

Thimphu’s shame

I went on a field trip today. To the Memelakha landfill. That’s where our garbage ends up everyday.

The landfill was built in 1992 and was designed to last for 10 years. But the actual landfill lasted only for 6 years. Since then the area has been used as a dumping ground. It continues to be used as such.

The landfill should have been lined with layers of concrete, plastic and concrete to prevent leakage. It wasn’t. So potentially toxic liquid seeps out of the walls and flows into a stream, which ends up in our river.

As soon as the landfill reached its capacity, it should have been sealed with several layers of concrete and plastic. It wasn’t. Instead, during the last 10 years since the landfill reached its capacity, even more garbage has been dumped on the landfill. The area has now turned into such a big dumping ground that it’s difficult to spot the original landfill.

Pipes should have been inserted into the landfill to release methane that rotting garbage generates. They weren’t. So the landfill is potentially explosive.

I was ashamed by what I saw. We produce a lot of garbage, some 40 tonnes everyday. But most of it is actually recyclable – plastics, paper and PET bottles. The problem is we don’t recycle. That’s the shame. And the garbage keeps piling.

The wall marked the designed capacity of the original landfill. What’s above the wall is what is now a dumping ground.

Garbage overflowing everywhere

Dogs reign supreme here

More dogs

Potentially toxic liquid seeping out

This must be deadly

Almost all of this is recyclable

Easy pickings

If only this had been recycled

Too little is recycled

Today’s pictures

Today, I saw the future … and it looks good!
Girls having fun, preparing themselves to become future teachers, doctors, engineers, scholars, technicians, poets, businesswomen, and politicians.

It snowed today, this season’s first. Although it was light, and only in the high mountains to the north of Thimphu, I was happy – it is good for our farmers, our environment and for hyrdopower.