Water and food security

Fields of gold

Students and teachers of Thimphu’s schools came together in Changangkha to commemorate World Water Day on 22 March. The celebrations included a wide array of well-thought-out presentations and entertaining performances highlighting the importance of water.

I was given the opportunity to talk to the students. So I told them a story, one that is relevant to this year’s World Water Day theme: “water and food security”. But one that is also relevant to the current rupee crisis.

Here’s a quick summary of my story:

Nob Gyeltshen is 77 years old. He hails from Dorithasa, a small village in the southern extreme of Haa, slightly above the Samtse border. Dorithasa is not connected by farm road. So it still takes at least two days to get there.

As a child, he, like all the other children in his village had two main responsibilities. One, he had to collect water for his household every morning. And two, he had to look after his family’s cattle during the day.

Every morning, little Nob Gyeltshen would get up at the crack of dawn, and rush to the water source, which was located about half an hour away. That water source was a small pool, a puddle in fact, and Nob Gyeltshen and his friends had to race there to arrive ahead of the cows. If a couple of thirsty cows beat them, there would be no water left, and the children would have to trek for another half an hour to the next water source.

Nob Gyeltshen could carry three bamboo flasks of water. Each flask measured about 3 feet long and was 6 inches wide. They weighed heavy on the little boy, but on most days, he would have to travel several times to the water source.

Water was, indeed, a scarce commodity in his village. And so was food. Nob Gyeltshen grew up eating pancakes made from buckwheat or millet. When he got lucky he would get to eat maize grits or enjoy roasted maize kernels. And when he got very lucky, he’d get to feast on rice. Rice was precious, because Dorithasa, and all its neighboring villages, did not have any paddy fields.

When Nob Gyeltshen turned 17, he joined the army. That’s how he left Dorithasa. And that’s how, at an early age, he got to visit Paro and Thimphu, Punakha and Wangdiphodrang. Wherever he went, the young soldier saw paddy fields. Every valley seemed to be endowed with endless fields of well-manicured terraces, capable of supplying any amount of rice that the people could have ever desired.

Wherever he went, Nob Gyeltshen collected paddy seeds. And he sent them to his home in Dorithasa. But none of them grew successfully, till he sent 10 dres of paddy from Bjena in Wangdiphodrang. Only 2 of the 10 dres made it to his village (the rest having been consumed by the couriers!) but that was enough. The paddy from Bjena took root, grew easily and yielded a surprisingly generous harvest.

When he heard the good news, Nob Gyeltshen sent his entire savings – about Nu 150 – to build paddy fields and to construct a simple irrigation channel to his village. Suddenly the entire village was growing paddy. And before long, they were producing more of it than what they could consume. When, several years later, Nob Gyeltshen returned to his village for the first time since joining the army, he saw that the entire Dorithasa community was growing more than enough rice for themselves, and that the extra rice was being bartered for other essential provisions.

He also saw that the little children did not have to travel long distances, very early in the mornings, to collect water. The irrigation channel provided an easy and constant supply of drinking water.


Public works

Thinley Lam

Thimphu’s main roads are fairly good. They are not necessarily beautiful, but, in spite of limited resources, they are, by and large, smooth, wide and well-managed.

The smaller roads, however, tell a different story. Many of them are narrow, riddled with pot holes, and have not seen any form of maintenance for years. Naturally, many local residents are frustrated. One such resident is Aum Thinley Lham. She lives in Taba and, for the longest time, has complained bitterly about the state of her road. But instead of continuing to grumble, she has decided to take matters into her own hands; she has decided to repair the road herself.

Last Sunday, I chanced upon Aum Thinley Lham repairing the road leading to upper Taba and to her property, Wangchuk Resort. She’d purchased several truckloads of concrete mix, and was using her own staff and her own vehicles to repair the road. Obviously, she couldn’t repair the entire road. But she felt lucky just to be able to patch up the biggest pot holes.

Most of us, who live in urban areas, take public property for granted. We want the best. But unlike our farmers, we do not contribute to building them. We don’t even contribute to their maintenance. This is not sustainable. If we want to enjoy good roads, good schools and good parks, we better learn, like Aum Thinley Lham, to contribute. Or we better be willing to pay our city corporation higher taxes.

Here’s a question: which, in your opinion, is the most beautiful road in Thimphu?

Family strength

Here’s another picture for my ‘father and child’ series:

Tobgay and his wife, Sonam, with their children occupying a vantage spot at the Chukha Dzong courtyard. The family had traveled from Bjabcho to attend the consecration of their dzong, and had made sure that they would enjoy a clear view of the folk and mask dances during the festivities. The consecration ceremony was graced by Her Majesty the Queen and presided over by His Holiness the Je Khenpo.


A role model

Civic sense. Do we have it?

Sangay Dorji is one person who does have good sense of civic responsibility. I chanced upon him fixing potholes on the road to Dechhenchholing. He collected soft rock, gravel and mud from a nearby landslide to fill the larger potholes. And within minutes, even before he was finished, vehicles started plying on the repaired side of the road.

Sangay Dorji, who lives in Dechhenchholing, drives a taxi on the weekends. He decided that he didn’t need to keep driving on a certain rough patch when he spotted a small landslide above the road. He’s already filled the potholes with mud and gravel several times. Similarly he keeps fixing the uneven – and dangerous – offset at one end of the Dechhenchholing bridge.

Here’s Sangay Dorji – a role model – in action.

Devika Darjee

A winner

Almost 200 of you took part in the poll to decide who would be our sportsperson of the year. Thank you for voting. And thank you for your many comments. I closed the poll at midnight on the last day of January.

The race was close. Ugyen Yoeser (cycling) and Devika Darjee (cricket) ran neck and neck in our informal competition. Eventually Devika won, but by barely a whisker – she secured 55 votes against Ugyen’s 53.

Devika Darjee was the only lady among my nominees for the sportsperson of 2010. She beat nine men to the top spot. Congratulations.

Devika wins Nu 25,000. She should contact me by email to claim her prize.

The prize money comes from the Nu 200,000 I collected for completing the Tour of the Dragon, a bicycle race from Bumthang to Thimphu. All of it is being spent on social work, especially to promote sports.

 Photo credit: Kuensel

Hospitality business


Shebji is Sombaykha’s northernmost village. And, civil servants, especially Dzongkhag officials, traveling to Sombaykha normally spend a night in there. After walking continuously downhill from Tergola (at about 4000 meters) through alpine meadows, giant rhododendron forests, and subtropical jungle to Shebji (about 1500 meters), most travelers are happy to rest their tired knees in this little hamlet.

Now, in accordance with our age-old traditions also still practiced throughout rural Bhutan, travelers can choose to eat and drink, rest and sleep in any one of Shebji’s eight houses. Each one of them would feel honoured and very happy to offer their hospitality to any traveler, even if the traveler was not known to them.

Most civil servants choose to rest in Aum Kunzang’s home. Aum Kunzang and her husband, Ap Kinely, who served as a Mang-gi Ap at one time, happily welcome all of them to their two-storied farmhouse and offer them their best tea, food, ara, and bedding. They have a constant stream of visitors to entertain – two to three groups every week during the winter months, some traveling to Sombaykha, others returning to Haa. Yet they don’t charge a thing. There’s no price attached, or expected, for their generous services. And, it would be downright rude to enquire.

So how do they manage? Another tradition allows travelers to gift a little something – in kind or in cash – as a token of their appreciation to their hosts. Naturally, the hosts always refuse. But, if their guests exercise a little determination, they have no option but to accept.

Aum Kunzang’s guests always leave a gift for her. Those “gifts” more than cover her expenses. In fact, she’s embarrassed that she makes a tidy profit from her hospitality – hospitality that she charges nothing for.

GNH and business, not mutually exclusive.

Changemaker Chencho

Ashoka Changemakers have announced their winners – the three most innovative solutions that radically rethink mental health to achieve individual and community well being. And Dr Chencho Dorji’s project, Promoting Mental Health in Traditional Bhutanese Society, is among them.

Dr Chencho’s project has won. Dr Chencho is an Ashoka Changemaker! Well done!

Dr Sanga Dorji

Lighting candles

Lighting candles

Dr Sanga Dorji, Chief Physiotherapist, JDWNR Hospital, on 3 December 2009, at Hotel Taj addressing his guests who had come together to celebrate International Day for Persons with Disabilities:

Honorable Tshogpon, Honorable Lyonpos, Honorable leader of the Opposition, Honorable Thrizin of the National Council, Honorable members of the Parliament, Representatives of the International Organizations, Dashos, Leaders of the Business communities, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen …

Dr Sanga’s introductory words were ordinary – this, in fact, is how almost every speech for almost every official occasion in Thimphu begins. But he said it with passion, and great satisfaction.  For him, every one of those words was profound. The words meant that he and the growing community of people with disabilities had come a long way in the twelve months since they celebrated International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 2008.

During the celebrations last year, the Government was noticeably absent. But this year’s event was well attended. Ministers, civil servants, parliamentarians, private businesses, NGOs and international organisations had turned up in full force to celebrate the lives of people with disabilities.

This week’s banner celebrates people with disabilities. It features our special people showing of their abilities, from embroidery and cakes by Draktsho to demonstrations and lessons on how the blind and the deaf communicate.

Now back to Dr Sanga. Many of us wondered if he’d ever get married. He did, in 2008, after completing a master’s degree in Rehab Medicine. Dr Sanga is a loving husband and a proud father of a four-month old daughter. He is also an accomplished professional.

I interviewed Dr Sanga recently.

Dr Sanga, please me a little about yourself.

Well … I grew up in Bemji, my village in Trongsa. When I was six years old I remember helping my parents in our farm and looking after our cattle. I had no problems with my vision, and like all other boys was enjoying life in Bemji. Those days most parents didn’t send their children to school, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to leave my home for a long time.

But when I turned eight, I started losing my sight, and in a matter of six months I became completely blind. I was confused and in shock. When I turned ten, my mother bought me to Thimphu Hospital to see if I could be cured.

The doctors in Thimphu told me that I had become blind because I did not have enough Vitamin A. They also told me that I would never regain my sight. Dr Samdrup, who was the Superintendent of the hospital then, reported my case to HRH Prince Namgyel Wangchuck who sent me to the Blind School in Khaling.

So, actually, I would not have attended school if I did not become blind! In many ways becoming blind was a blessing in disguise. Of course, there are many disadvantages in being blind, but then, a lot of good has come out of it too.

You are Bhutan’s foremost physiotherapist. How did you choose this profession?

By the time I reached Class 6, I started thinking about a career. I may have been blind, but I was wanted to become a professional and to be independent. So I asked my principal, Mr Philip Holmberg, what blind people did in the West. He told me that the three most successful careers for blind people were lawyers, professors and physiotherapists. I immediately knew what I wanted to become. You see, as a child, I used to suffer from frequent toothaches, and I had to go to the hospital a lot. So, at quite an early age, I wanted to work in a hospital, and I realized that physiotherapy would allow me to do just that.

I studied till Class 8 in the Blind School. Then I studied for two years in Khaling High School. After that I worked in the Department of Education, mostly attending to telephone calls. I would also go to the hospital to observe the physiotherapist, a Burmese doctor, at work.

In 1989, I got a scholarship from the Royal Government to study in London. I studied for two years, and then trained as a physiotherapist for four years.

As Bhutan’s first physiotherapist, did you build the whole programme yourself?

In some ways, I suppose I did. But I also got a lot of support from my colleagues, especially from physio-technicians, some of who were very helpful. Also, Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup was the health minister at that time. Lyonpo Sangay gave me a lot of practical support, and was very helpful in expanding the physiotherapy services to the districts.

Are you happy with your work?

Oh, I’m very happy. I find my work enjoyable. I mainly do clinical work, but I also teach regularly. And, since I am the head of the physiotherapy department, I have to do some management work too.

I meet a lot of people in my line of work. And I enjoy that. I get to meet people from different professions and different backgrounds. And, when you interact with them you get to know the good things in their lives, but also their personal difficulties.

Who are your role models?

I have many role models. But, as a visually impaired person, the person who has inspired me the most, and who I look up to is Helen Keller. Although Helen Keller was born with multi-disabilities (she was blind, deaf and dumb) she received an education and succeeded in life. She authored many books that have inspired countless people, especially people with disabilities.

Helen Keller has given us many proverbs. I enjoy them a lot. My favourite proverb is “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. I agree with that completely. Cursing the dark will give us no light. But lighting a candle will surely provide us an alternative.

I hear you like to trek. Tell me how you trek, with whom, where and how often.

Yes, I love trekking. I trek with a good group of friends including doctors, physio-technicians and civil servants. I coordinate the treks. We generally do about two treks a year, one in the spring and one in the autumn.

Of course, I need a “sighted guide” to lend me an elbow. I just follow the guide and my friends.

I enjoy being in the forests, and in our mountains. I love to sit by the bon fire, free of all other noises in the wild. I feel at peace and enjoy the freshness in the mountains.

My most adventurous trek was the pilgrimage to Singye Dzong in 2004. We walked for three days to get there, and three days to get back. We camped for five days in Singye Dzong visiting all the sacred sites.

My favourite trek is to Dagala. It’s not too tough and there are plenty of lovely lakes. I went in October, so the weather was perfect at that time.

What are your other interests?

I enjoy listening to every thing – radio, TV, cassette player and the like. Mostly, I listen to news and current affairs. I also listen to stories.

What do you think about support for people with disabilities in Bhutan?

Things have improved, but a lot more needs to be done. Infrastructure and services have to be made more accessible, especially for people in wheel chairs.

We had to have the International Day for People with Disabilities in Hotel Taj. It was expensive, but it is the only hotel that was accessible for people in wheel chairs. We explored many hotels, but they were either too small or were not accessible for wheel chairs.

Our hotels as business must look into it, not just for people with disabilities, but for other people as well. For instance, many tourists visit Bhutan, and some of them are old people who may have difficulty in climbing stairs or may even need wheel chairs. Making the hotels accessible will benefit such tourists as well as local disabled persons.

Also, our policies should not be to develop something just for disabled people. Whatever we build, we must build for the use of all people, disabled and non-disabled.

Have you considered joining politics?

[Laughing] I’m so happy with my current life that I don’t think of anything else.

Biking in Bhutan

Mountain bikers

Mountain bikers

I’ve recently started cycling again. So I was happy to bump into Kuenga Wangchuk, Pasang, Singye Tshering, Amier Mongar and Nima Palden. Kuenga is a bike technician with Yu Druk, a tour company that specializes in and promotes cycling in Bhutan. Pasang owns a tour company, Singye and Nima are guides, and Amier is a bar tender at Bhutan Suites.

The five friends bike together as often as possible, but at least every weekend. Most of their routes are around Thimphu. To Tango Monastery, for example. Or to Kuenselphodrang. And, sometimes, to Sangaygang from where there’s a lovely 5 km biking trail that runs through the beautiful forests and passes by Wangditse and Choekortse.

Yesterday, I met them in Shaba, as they cycled from Thimphu to Paro, where they would have lunch, before heading back to Thimphu.

They said that they might let me ride with them. So, I’m already looking forward to the coming weekends.

Farmhouse lunch

Sonam'sWe had lunch today at Aum Sonam’s house. Aum Sonam, who was a member of the last National Assembly before the introduction of parliamentary democracy, served us a sumptuous meal of kharang, sikam, aima datsi, mushrooms, farm eggs, cottage cheese and papaya.

I enjoyed Aum Sonam’s cooking thoroughly. It was clean, wholesome and traditional. So I asked her if she would be willing to make lunch for other travelers between Bumthang and Mongar or Trashigang. Her answer was “yes!” quickly qualified by “but they should call me first”.

Her farmhouse is located among Thidanbi’s bucolic paddy fields about five kilometres uphill from Lingmithang. It’s a natural lunch stop when traveling from Bumthang to Mongar, or from Trashigang to Bumthang. If you want to try Aum Sonam’s food, telephone her at 1770-1287 or her husband, Thinley Namgay, at 1764-4057.

I’m quite certain that tourists would also enjoy a visit to Aum Sonam’s. Besides cooking lunch and brewing tea, she could be easily be distilling ara, frying zao, or pounding tsip, all traditional activities that more of our tourists would want to see.

I already know where we’ll have lunch on our way back.