Weather service

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Waiting for the sun

I woke up to a glorious morning today. The skies were clear. And the heavens promised a warm, sunny day.

That’s how it’s supposed to be at this time of the year – warm, sunny and bright: perfect weather for harvesting paddy. And that’s why some of our farmers, prompted by BBS’s forecast for sunny weather, have begun to harvest their crop.

But the farmers who harvested their paddy a few days ago and, as is required, left them to dry in their fields were in for some anxious moments yesterday. It had rained the previous day and almost all of yesterday. And they feared that another day of rain would destroy their crop and an entire year’s worth of hard labour. So, naturally, they are delighted at the possibility that today’s sun will quickly dry their rain soaked paddy.

This happened last year too. And the year before. Our farmers had to deal with unseasonal rain and were left literally praying for the sun to come out so that the paddy they had harvested would not rot in the rain.

Our farmers forecast weather at this time of the year by expecting the previous week’s weather to continue for the next two to three days. Some of them combine that estimate with BBS TV’s weather forecast. But BBS’s predictions, which are based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture’s meteorological center, can be notoriously unreliable. So every year, at this time of the year, our farmers spend many anxious days trying to guess the best time to harvest their crop.

Much of this anxiety is unnecessary. Many websites – AccuWeather and BBC, for example – provide free satellite images and weather forecasts for Bhutan. Their forecasts are also not accurate. But at least they provide satellite images and show weather patterns. And gewog administration officers, RNR extension workers and the farmers themselves could use that information to develop a clearer picture of the weather pattern.

But we can do a better job; we can go much further to reduce the anxiety among our farmers. That would be possible by purchasing professional weather forecasting services, and distributing that information, as and when needed, through TV or other media, to our farmers. That wouldn’t cost much. But that would help our farmers immensely. And that’s what the government should be doing.

Pep-say

Leech buster

Thank you for participating in Big Picture -12. It was fun to follow your comments – most of you recognized the picture, but you still spent the time to craft interesting answers. Thank you.

My favorite answer comes from “Thinlay”, whose keen sense of observation, meticulous research and precise composition bags our prize: bragging rights! Here’s the scholar’s complete and  completely correct answer:

It is a white plastic bottle with narrow neck and closed with modified wooden cap, and tied around the waist to ensure that it does not fall off while walking. The content could be anything from alcohol to insects (including leech) killing potion concocted with ingredients ranging from herbal extract to lime, acid, salt to tobacco solution. It is carried by people who have to walk through, work or live around the tropical forests.

The complete picture shows Budhalal Rai of Yaba village in Sombaykha with his “pep-say”, a container carrying a strong solution of tobacco, lime and salt. Budhalal Rai, like his fellow villagers, carries the contraption throughout the rainy season and uses the potent mixture to easily and effectively remove leeches that climb up on him.

So far, however, Budhalal has found little reason to use his pep-say. It hasn’t been raining in his village, so the leeches are staying put. In fact, it hasn’t been raining in most parts of Bhutan. The rains this year are very late, and have caused drought-like conditions in much of Bhutan with disturbing reports coming in from  Trashigang, Trashiyantse, Lhuntse, Pemagatshel, Tsirang, the South and the western dzongkhags.

But our farmers don’t have a choice. Rain or no rain, they must do their work. Our farmers are doing their part. They are working their fields. And they are praying for rain.

We need to do our part too. If the rains don’t arrive, and don’t arrive soon, we will need to go on a war footing throughout our country to save our crops. If that fails, we will need to quickly come up with new ideas to grow alternate crops.  And if that fails, we will need to start preparing to fight a nation wide food shortage.

Whatever it is, we need to act now. We must act now, unless it rains, and the leeches come out, and Budhalal and farmers throughout the country dab them with pep-say.

Country roads

Ancestral road

I am in Dorikha. I got here this evening having walked up from Dorithasa.

My ancestors did this journey every year, at this time of the year, over the course of many centuries. They migrated to escape the oppressive summer heat of Dorithasa in favor of the much cooler Dorikha. And in the winter, they moved right back to Dorithasa to enjoy the mild weather there.

Most of my relatives no longer migrate between two farms. They now live, throughout the year, in one of the two villages. But the two villages are closely related. So our people still make the arduous journey between Dorithasa and Dorikha frequently.

During the last five years, I too have had the occasion to travel between my two villages frequently. My job, as a politician and a member of parliament, requires me to visit my constituency and, as such, to make the journey between Dorithasa and Dorikha at least twice each year. I enjoy this aspect of my job thoroughly. Walking through the immense rhododendron forest, punctuated by tsamdro meadows, is in itself a wonderful experience. But what is truly awe-inspiring is the knowledge that I am tracing the footsteps of my ancestors; and the powerful feeling that, somehow, I am connecting with them.

Today, as always, I enjoyed my trek up from Dorithasa. But today I made sure to walk slowly. I walked slowly, and I paused frequently, to capture the beautiful sights, to absorb the enchanting sounds, and to take in the rich air of the still pristine forests.

I walked slowly, because from the next time on, I’ll be driving! The farm road being built has almost reached Dorithasa. And from there it will continue to Sombaykha and Gakiling gewog centers.

Once the road is ready, our people will no longer have to make the difficult journey over the mighty Tergola on foot. I won’t have to either. We’ll be able to drive.

Will our ancestors approve? I know they will. The road, after all, heralds a new and exciting chapter to a hitherto forgotten part of our country.

Inadequate and insulting

 

Terrible job!

Farming in Bhutan is difficult work. Our farmers toil from dawn till dusk, in the sun and the rain, and with rudimentary tools, just to secure a basic harvest, which, at the best of times, is barely enough to feed their families through the year.

Farming in Bhutan is also a notoriously risky business. Rain, drought, floods, storms, hail, insects, disease and wild animals combine to keep our farmers on edge till they have harvested and safely stored their produce. But even after that, our farmers face one more big risk: markets. There’s absolutely no guarantee that their produce will fetch the money needed to make the hard work – and the anxiety – worthwhile.

That’s why, yesterday, during the National Assembly’s question hour, I asked the Agriculture Minister two related questions. One, I asked how the government would help our farmers secure more predictable prices for their produce. And two, I enquired when the government would start a crop insurance scheme.

The Agriculture Minister’s answers to both the questions were inadequate. And they were insulting.

To introduce my first question, I had reported that that the prices for cash crops – cardamom, mandarin oranges, apples, and potatoes, for example – are set by foreign buyers; that, as such, our farmers have absolutely no say over the price for their produce; that the prices are erratic and change every year; and that, last year, the price for potatoes fell three-fold in 7 weeks, from a high of Nu 21 per kg in October to Nu 7 per kg in late November.

Staying with last year’s potato disaster, I reported that, when I visited the Phuentsholing auction yard, I saw more than 150 truckloads of potatoes. Most of them had already been there for more than a week, paying Nu 500 per truck per day in demurrage, as the yard was able to auction only 20 to 25 truckloads a day.

Some farmers admitted to purposely holding on to their produce expecting the price to rise, but most others had no such intention; they just couldn’t get their potatoes to the auction yard earlier for a variety of valid reasons.

So I asked the Agriculture Minister if the government could look for ways of expanding local demand for cash crops; or ways of tying up with more reliable and established Indian buyers; or ways to do business with buyers from other countries.

The Agriculture Minister’s answer, which was inadequate and insulting, was that our farmers were gambling, that they were spoilt, and that the government would not spoil them any further. He also complained that when cash crops fetched good prices, farmers did not credit the government and expected even higher prices the following year. But he didn’t commit to, or for that matter comment on, doing anything to make the price of cash crops more predictable.

To introduce my second question, I had recalled that, last year, just before harvest time, a terrible hailstorm wiped out a lot of the paddy in Shengana; that 150 families had lost almost their entire crop; and that Aum Dorjim had cried inconsolably on national television bemoaning her misfortune and lamenting that she wouldn’t be able to feed her family or service her loans in the coming year.

I went on to report that, every year, many farmers face similar situations; we just don’t hear about them. Disasters routinely undo a whole year’s worth of hard labour, undermining the fortunes of entire families, and effectively trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty.

I also reported that way back in September 2008, the Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan and the Ministry of Agriculture had submitted a joint proposal to the government to begin a crop insurance scheme. Crop insurance is, no doubt, complicated. But it is possible. And it is necessary. It would remove much of the uncertainty and anxiety that dominate the lives of our farmers today.

So I asked the Agriculture Minister, to tell us what happened to that proposal, and, if possible, to let us know when we can expect crop insurance to be launched.

The Agriculture Minister’s answer, which was inadequate and insulting, was that his ministry had started a human wildlife conflict endowment fund, and that none of the members of Parliament had contributed to that fund. He totally ignored the question about crop insurance.

Farming in Bhutan is a difficult and risky business. Let’s take the plight of our farmers seriously. Let’s protect them from unscrupulous syndicated foreign buyers. Let’s guarantee them fair market value for the hard work. And let’s provide some form of basic crop insurance.

The best possible shed

Impressive

I’m in Shaba, a small village in Sombaykha. The recent earthquake damaged all 12 of its houses. Luckily, no one was injured. And thankfully, most of the houses have suffered only minor damages.

But one house was hit hard. It has been damaged beyond repair. It’s still standing. But barely so. And it is no longer safe. That house belongs to Ap Zhep, aged 70, and his family.

Fearing aftershocks, every family scrambled to erect temporary shelters for themselves immediately after the earthquake.

And because Ap Zhep was practically homeless, the entire village got together to build him a shed. They pooled their resources–they contributed tarpaulin, CGI sheets, timber and labour–to build his family the best possible temporary shelter.

I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Ap Zhep’s temporary home. It boasts a spacious room with proper floorboards and a full sized traditional stove. Plus it has a store room and a covered verandah. He claims that the only reason he doesn’t have electricity in his shed is because it’s not safe to climb on the roof of his damaged house to remove the solar panels.

But it’s not just in Shaba that the community joined hands to help one of their own. In Shebji, a neighboring village, the residents got together to build a shed for Aum Sonam and Dorji Wangchuk. And I already know that I’ll hear similar heartwarming stories across other villages in Sombaykha.

 

Big ideas

House No. 7

I stayed at Yangtsena yesterday. It’s a small village on the southern slopes of the Pu-la overlooking the Amochhu river.

Yangtsena has only seven houses. But all of them are handsome, traditional farmhouses. It wasn’t always like that – just 14 years ago, they lived in basic bamboo huts.

That’s about when, when Yangtsena’s residents got together and decided that they, all seven households, must have better houses. Individually, no family had the resources to build a farmhouse. So they decided to pool their resources, especially labour, and collectively build all of their houses, one farmhouse at a time.

Contributing labour to build houses is not uncommon in our villages. Almost every house in rural Bhutan has been built using at least some form of free labour from their neighours.

But what sets Yangtsena apart is their resolve to build the entire village collectively, an idea that engaged every man, woman and child, almost every winter, in construction. Last winter, they completed their seventh, and final, farmhouse. And with that they completed an idea that began 14 years ago.

Yangtsena is a small village. But they have big ideas. Their next project is to improve their irrigation channels and then, again collectively, build more paddy fields. The idea – a big idea, and one that they will surely achieve – is to become self sufficient in rice.

Happiness without kerosene

Happiness is ...

Today is the 24th of March. So it’s exactly three years since PDP got clobbered in the kingdom’s first general elections. Actually it wasn’t that bad – 33% of the voters had supported us. It’s just that that, unfortunately, translated to only two of the 47 seats in the National Assembly.

Anyhow, it’s now three years since that fateful day. And I’ve decided to commemorate the general elections by going to the people. I’m in Dorikha, at my indulgent aunt’s farmhouse, on my way to Gakiling gewog.

I’m taking along two important items for this trip. The first is a book: “Happiness – Lessons from a New Science” by Richard Layard, an economist who challenges that contemporary economic theory does not favour the pursuit of happiness.

The second item is a “solar light bulb” manufactured by Nokero (as in “no kerosene” – their idea is to replace the use of kerosene for illuminating homes). Nokero’s bulb is the size of a regular incandescent bulb, but carries a complete system to convert sunlight into electricity – solar panel, rechargeable battery, and light emitting diodes.

The Nokero bulb I’m carrying is a sample. Several villages in Gakiling don’t have electrical light, so I’ll use it to read “Happiness” at night. If the bulb survives my week-long tour, it would be ample proof that Nokero would make a worthy gift to our remote farmers.

Forest fire

Lopa village

Saved ... phew!

The people of Lopa village in Haa, Samar Gewog, did not sleep last night. They stayed up to guard their village – a cluster of mostly old farmhouses at the edge of a pine forest – from wild fires that was spreading through the woodland above their village.

The fire had started yesterday afternoon. And the Haa Dzongdag had quickly mobilized forestry officials, civil servants and community volunteers to fight the blaze. But the fire, which was fanned by strong winds, would not be contained. And by nightfall, the dzongdag wisely called off the fire fighting efforts as boulders, set loose from the rocky outcrop above the village, came hurling down the hillside.

But by the crack of dawn today, dzongkhag officials and volunteers were already battling the fires. This time they were joined by almost a hundred RBA soldiers. And this time they were successful. They bought the fire under control.

Had it not been for the quick response of the dzongkhag and forestry officials, and the help of the army, the fire would have razed Lopa and spread through the neighbouring village of Nobgang to the dense pine forests above Puduna. And the fire would still be raging.

Featured in the banner are the remains of the recent snow that put out a big forest fire in Katsho, and helped contain another one today.

Fighting poverty

Very low income housing

A popular attraction at the recent Tarayana Fair was the Lhop house. The house, which barely measures 8 feet by 9 feet, had belonged to Ap Pen Tshering, and in it, he and his wife, Aum Gagay Lham, had raised their four children.

75 year-old Pen Tshering’s house had been dismantled and transported to Thimphu, where it was carefully reassembled to showcase the lifestyle of the Lhops, Bhutan’s first inhabitants. And Pen Tshering had been more than happy to abandon his house. After all, he had no need for it.

Ap Pen Tshering, you see, had built a bigger, better and stronger house – one that has four rooms, a separate kitchen and a CGI roof. He’d built his new house with help from Tarayana Foundation.

But his is not the only house that Tarayana has built in Lotukuchu, easily the poorest and the most neglected part of our country. In fact, Tarayana has helped almost every household in the three villages that make up Lotukuchu build better homes. At last count, 73 families have already moved into new dwellings. And houses for the remaining 10-odd families are already being constructed.

And it’s not just housing. Tarayana has helped the Lhops – in Lotukuchu and elsewhere – acquire the resources and skills needed to increase farm productivity and improve income generation. That’s why today’s Lhops are no longer living in abject poverty, completely cut off from the rest of the country. Today’s Lhops boast decent housing, piped water, proper sanitation, an oil expeller, a maize grinder, a cornflake making machine, a power tiller, a traditional paper factory, and a cooperative shop.

And it’s not just in Lotukuchu. Since its establishment, seven years ago, Tarayana has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our poorest people – simple subsistence farmers who live in some of the remotest corners of Bhutan. Before Tarayana, very few officials had visited them. And no one cared about them. They had been forgotten.

Not any longer. Today, Tarayana is intimately involved in 36 villages across 5 dzongkhags reducing poverty levels, improving the quality of lives, and giving hope to entire communities.

How do they do it? Raw determination. And the support of donors, volunteers and well-wishers. But also by making every ngultrum count.

It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication to transform the lives of our Lhops. But Tarayana’s war against poverty in Lotukuchu cost them only US$ 100,000. That’s about the price of a new Toyota Prado. And that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Imagine what we could have done with US$ 9.2 million!

Birthday celebrations

Sombaykha Dungkhag

Sombaykha is the latest of our country’s 16 dungkhags. It was established barely two years ago to serve the two remote gewogs of Sombaykha and Gakiling. The offices of the dungkhag, which consists of three makeshift houses, are located in Sibthang along the banks of the Amochu.

Last Sunday, on 21 February, farmers from Gakiling and Sombaykha, descended on their dungkhag to celebrate His Majesty the King’s birth anniversary.

This week’s banner features the dungkhag office. More photographs of the festivities are in the gallery.