Innovative tree-top water pipes safe-guard future for elderly mountain community in Bhutan

  • October 25, 2023

  • Shumar, Bhutan

As we age, certain tasks get harder - like carry heavy containers of water. But with age, they say, comes wisdom. In Shumar, a remote mountain community in south-eastern Bhutan, an isolated community of mostly older persons has used their years of experience in managing the impacts of landslides to design a specially adapted water delivery system suspended from the branches of large trees.

Water pipes are more usually buried underground for protection. But in Shumar, a region experiencing a growing number of climate change-related landslides each year, pipes are kept above ground so damage can easily been seen, isolated and mended.

“As we get older, it becomes more difficult to fetch water. Now we have [water] right here - it is so much better,” said Yeshi Wangmo, who is 84 years old and one of the 50 mostly older persons who call Shumar ‘home’.

Mrs Wangmo, farmer in Shumar, Pemagatshel, Bhutan

“We used to collect spring water in the summer, up on those hills,” Mrs Wangmo said, adding that when water sources started running dry over a decade ago, the residents adapted by harvesting rainwater. When that innovation also dried up, they consulted with the local government to use a grant from the Local Climate Adaptive Living Facility to invest in a more sustainable solution: and developed a piped overground water supply network, much of which is suspended from large mountainside trees.

Mr Sonam Dendup, the representative of Shumar ‘Gewog’, or local government, explained that climate changes have exacerbated the negative impacts of recent land use changes, such as mining in the region, which residents say has destabilised land. As a consequence, landslides are a real and ever present threat to the community and the infrastructure that underpins their livelihoods.

“We used to have the rain from June and July - now they come in March and April. Because of climate change, we have been facing more and more difficulties as our water tables are going down yearly," said Mr Dendup.

This year, the rains lasted until November – many months beyond the end of the traditional rainy season. The additional rainfall soaked land making it heaving and contributing to thousands of landslides across Bhutan, resulting in an untold number of fatalities as well as damage to property, farmland and infrastructure.

In Shumar, the community had to regularly find new sources to maintain their water supply because sources would often got blocked or change course because of the landslides. Being a small community of mostly older persons and cognisant that landslides are a persistent threat, they needed a system that was resilient and quickly and easily fixable.

The community-led solution used local know-how, experience and ingenuity to suspend their water infrastructure from trees; a LoCAL performance-based climate resilience grant provided the necessary funding. The local government received the grant as part of LoCAL’s support to Bhutan for investment in resilience building and adaptation to climate change at the local level.

The LoCAL grants are awarded based on how well local governments perform in implementing climate adaptation measures - from year to year, local governments are able to build their capacities to take on more funds and better respond to incremental needs. Local governments that perform well can get additional funds in subsequent allocations, based on their level of performance. The LoCAL approach prioritises devolving decision making and channelling finance to the lowest tier of subnational government where the impacts of climate change are most acutely experienced.

LoCAL was deployed as an innovative financial instrument to channel climate finance effectively to local areas where adaptation action is most needed. Piloted in Bhutan and Cambodia in 2011, LoCAL has since facilitated over 350 adaptation investments in some of the most remote areas of the country, thanks to budget support from the European Union. However, more funds are needed to further scale adaptation action. While climate finance has slowly trickled down to rural areas like Shumar, the needs grow exponentially every year.

In the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations, adaptation is critical and all too often under-resourced. LoCAL is a country-owned mechanism for climate finance and bridges this funding gap, realising adaptation solutions for more than 16 million people around the world to date. More than 30 countries across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific are engaging with LoCAL to deliver small scale, with big impact, resilience-building solutions for climate-vulnerable populations. The LoCAL approach provides the basis for international standard ISO 14093:2022, which contributes to Sustainable Development Goals 1, 11 and 13.

Mr Sonam Dendup, the Gewog representative, explains that small and targeted adaptation investments like the one in Shumar are making a big difference. “With the support we received, we expect to address climate impacts and keep this small community of elderly persons happy," he said, adding that many other communities in the gewog are also in need of similarly targeted adaptation investments, without which he has deep concerns for their futures.

“There have been many lives lost due to climate change,” said Mr Dendup. “In the summer, there are conflicts because of water in the communities - and some of the villages have been abandoned.”

Mr Sonam Dendup, Shumar Gewog Governor, Pemagatshel, Bhutan.

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The LoCAL facility provides technical assistance and tools for climate vulnerable countries to access climate finance for local adaptation action. The LoCAL approach and country experience provide the basis for a global ISO standard and mechanism for financing local adaptation.

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