Bhutan is widely known for its natural beauty and vibrant culture. In recognition of this, the Bhutanese government passes policies solely on the basis of advancing happiness through the four pillars of happiness seen below (Wangchuk et al, 2015; World Economic Forum, 2021). Due to the Bhutanese government's promise of upholding happiness, Bhutan was considered the happiest country in the world in 2015 according to the Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI, 2015). However, as the impacts of climate change begin to be felt in the Himalayan region, the environment and culture that has upheld happiness in Bhutan is under threat (Hoy et al, 2016).
Vulnerability to Climate Change
As seen through Bhutan's four pillars of happiness, their society and culture are deeply connected to the natural world (Givel, 2015). According to Sana Munawar, who studies the connection between Bhutan’s natural preservation and their economy, she asserts that Bhutan is one of two carbon-neutral countries in the world and due to this the preservation of agriculture and forestry is the largest industry in Bhutan. Bhutan mainly relies on subsistence agriculture and is committed to maintaining 70% forest cover across the country, therefore, the majority of their workforce can be categorized within natural conservation and agriculture (Munawar, 2016). Further reliance on natural conservation for economic stability can be seen through the tourist industry as people from across the world visit Bhutan to see the beauty of the Himalayas (Munawar, 2016). Climate change has the ability to severely change and threaten the industries Bhutan relies on for economic security: Agriculture, conservation, and tourism (Hoy et al 2016). However, the most threatening impact climate change could bring to Bhutan is the disruption of their healthcare system through the loss of plant based medicines (Wangchuk et al, 2015; Hoy et al, 2016).
Bhutan's Healthcare System
Plant based medicines are deeply integrated into Bhutan’s healthcare system. Plant based medicines in Bhutan originate from the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Indigenous people in the area dating back to the 8th century (Wangchuk et al, 2011). The understanding of the use of plant based medicines in Bhutan and its importance has been fundamentally studied by scholar Phurpa Wangchuk. He describes the importance of plant based medicines in four main ways: (Wangchuck et al, 2011; 2015):
- Over 1000 plant based medicines are known to have medicinal benefits, and 300 of which are protected under Bhutan's Biodiversity Action Plan of 2009.
- Bhutan's Health Policy of 2010: Designates the 300 plants with medicinal benefits protected by the government to be used within healthcare practices. This policy also promotes the continued acceptance of traditional folk healers (gso-ba-rig-pa).
- Despite western medicine being introduced to the country in the 1960's traditional healing, through the gso-ba-rig-pa and plant based medicines, has remained the predominant form of healthcare in Bhutan.
- 51% of Bhutanese use gso-ba-rig-pa healers over western forms of medicine and 83% are satisfied with their care.
Location, Landscape, and Climate
In order to analyze how climate change may impact Bhutan it is important to understand the location, landscape, and climate of Bhutan.
Location: Bhutan is located in South Asia just below the Tibet region of China and to the east of Nepal. Bhutan is considered the most eastern Himalayan Country.
Landscape: The landscape of Bhutan can be defined through its severe topographical change as seen in the map below (Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 2020). The topography in Bhutan ranges from the high altitude Himalayas in the north to the subtropic foothills of the south (Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 2020).
Climate: The climate of Bhutan varies with the topographical changes across the country (Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 2020; Chhogyel and Kumar, 2018; Hoy et al, 2016).
- Northern Bhutan is a high altitude alpine climate. In the south there are warm temperatures, humid air, and heavy rainfall.
- Monsoon season in June-August.
Impacts of Climate Change in Bhutan
- Changes in Monsoon season: Monsoons will become more erratic as temperatures change in South Asia. They are predicted to last for shorter periods of time but in increased severity (IPCC, 2019; Hoy et al, 2016).
- Warming: Like other Himalayan countries Bhutan will experience intense warming due to climate change. This may bring flooding and erosion as high altitude glaciers melt (Hoy et al, 2017; Chhogyel and Kumar, 2018).
- Change in vegetation cover: Changing precipitation patterns and warming temperatures will bring greening and desertification events across the country (IPCC, 2019; Choggyel and Kumar, 2018; Hoy et al, 2017; Williams et al, 2007). Greening: As high altitude areas warm and experience increased moisture their environments will be more conducive to plant growth (IPCC, 2019; Williams et al, 2007). Desertification: The current subtropic area will lose moisture as temperatures increase past normal levels and the monsoon season lasts for a shorter period of time. This process may lead to desertification in the southern part of Bhutan (IPCC, 2019; Williams et al, 2007).
The Impacts on Plant Based Medicines
- Beautiful flowering tree seen throughout this page and to the right.
- Bhutan is home to 49 different Rhododendron Species. Many of them are endemic to Bhutan (Bhattacharyya, 2011).
- The flowers of the Rhododendron tree provide medicinal benefits, including the treatment of indigestion, inflammation, and pain (Bhattacharyya, 2011).
- Due to climate change Rhododendron species are blooming up to a month earlier and are expected to decrease in growing area by over 50,000HA by 2080 (Choden et al, 2021).
Ophiocordyceps Sinensis (The Caterpillar Fungi):
- Bhutan's rarest and most expensive medicinal plant (seen below). One KG of this fungi can sell for $20,000 USD (Lo et al, 2013).
- Extremely small biological niche. Only found in the Tibetan plateau at elevations above 12,000 feet (Choden et al, 2021; Lo et al, 2013).
- Medicinal benefits: traditionally used for all illnesses as it improves energy, appetite, libido, and sleeping patterns. Scientists now suspect it has anti-tumor properties (Lo et al, 2013).
- Due to its rare biological niche the Caterpillar Fungi is extremely susceptible to climate change and could face extinction (Choden et al, 2021). Even if the plant's biological niche is able to adjust to warming temperatures by moving to higher altitudes harvesters will have to climb to even higher altitudes to obtain the rare fungi (Choden et al, 2021).
Other threats to Medicinal Plants Found in Bhutan:
- All 1,000 of the known medicinal plants in the region are under threat as vegetation cover changes over time (Chodden et al, 2021; IPCC, 2019; Chhogyel and Kumar, 2018).
- Invasive species will become more common, challenging the biodiversity of the region (Chodden et al, 2021; Chhogyel and Kumar, 2018; Hoy et al, 2016).
- The biological niche of plants will move north to higher elevations as temperatures warm. Many of these plants can not survive at these altitudes and the ones that can will become harder to grow or harvest (Choden et al, 2021; Chhogyel and Kumar, 2018).
- Farming villages in high-altitude regions responsible for producing many plant based medicines are predominantly located along rivers and therefore at risk to flooding from glacial lake outbursts (Tenzin et al, 2019; Hoy et al, 2016).
- The loss of traditional ecological knowledge used to harvest and make plant based medicines due to a changing environment (Nepal, 2021; Wangchuk et al, 2015).
Adapting Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)
- As the harvesting of plant based medicines relies heavily on TEK, the use and understanding of TEK must change as Bhutan’s environment experiences the impacts of climate change (Nepal, 2021).
- There is a lack of research regarding adaptation strategies being taken to adjust TEK to continue the practice of harvesting and using plant based medicines in Bhutan. However, adaptation will most likely focus on the understanding of changing growing areas and seasons, as seen in other societies' use of TEK (Nepal, 2021; Pearce et al, 2015).
Sustainable land management: Many of the aspects of sustainable land management in Bhutan can be considered climate change mitigation, such as carbon neutrality. However, ensuring that Bhutan continues to be connected to the natural world around them through a healthy relationship with their environment provides increased resilience to the impacts of climate change (Tenzin, 2019; Hoy et al, 2016; Munawar, 2016; Meenawat and Sovacool, 2011).
- As a government policy 70% of Bhutan must be covered in trees which helps prevent erosion in sloped areas and supplies habitats to wildlife.
- Organic Farming is practiced throughout Bhutan and can be translated to the cultivation of plants with medicinal benefits. Organic farming is considered to be more drought resistant and helps maintain soil health and abundance.
Glacial lake outburst floods: Bhutan’s Department of Geology and Mines is working to lower lake water levels to prevent severe flooding. This is being done through:
- Controlled draining of glacial lakes by drilling small holes in the ice wall
- Siphoning water out of the glacial lakes
- Bhutan's healthcare system is heavily reliant on plant based and a large contributor to Bhutan's high happiness level (Wangchuk et al, 2015).
- TEK related to the harvesting and use of these plant based medicines is under threat due to climate change (Hoy et al, 2016; Wangchuk et al 2015)
- The impacts of climate change are first felt by the most vulnerable communities, but will be felt by everyone. Climate Change has the ability to disrupt western healthcare systems, not just Bhutan, as 40% of all western medicines are derived from plants and TEK knowledge (WHO, 2023).
About The Author
Ryan Krugman graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2024 with a bachelor of arts in environmental studies-sociology. As an environmental studies-sociology major Ryan's academic focus has been on the relation between the environment and societal issues. This brought him to research the impacts of food waste in his home town of Baltimore through an internship with a local non-profit 4MyCiTy and on St. Lawrence University's campus as an intern for the 2023 food waste audit. In the summer of 2023 he worked with a north country non-profit, GardenShare, to promote local organic food systems to further food security in the area. After graduating he will continue to research food systems and adaption to climate change.
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