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Who's responsible for water in Bhutan anyway?
Publication Date : 13-12-2012
A bid to bring the precious resource under one agency has set the cat among the pigeons
The Bhutanese Cabinet has approved, in principle, the works and human settlement ministry's proposal to be the central agency for all drinking water supply plans and programmes in the country from the Eleventh Plan.
Although Bhutan has abundant water resources at the national level with 109,000 cubic metres per capita of water, the human settlement ministry fears that, with population growth, socio-economic development and climate change, water issues would arise if things were left as they are today.
A water demand forecast exercise carried out by the department of energy and Norconsult had estimated gross consumptive demand for water to be 422 million cubic metres in 2002, 516 million cubic metres by 2012 and 541 million cubic metres by 2022.
Non-consumptive water demand exists in the form of hydropower demand, which was estimated at 6,700 million cubic metres for 2002, and is forecasted to grow to 26,900 million cubic metres by 2022.
"There's a strong need to integrate conservation and management of water resources to achieve long term sustainability of this precious resource," Works and Human Settlement Ministry's secretary, Sonam Tenzin, said.
The in-principle approval means that the health ministry, which has been looking after the rural water supply scheme in the country for the last 14 years, will have to hand over its "water programme, along with its people" to the human settlement ministry, which looks after the water supply in urban Bhutan.
"Drinking water infrastructure in urban and rural areas are looked after by different agencies, although they share the same source," the secretary pointed out.
Even though it's managed by two different agencies at the headquarters, Tenzin said, "Field implementation for both rural and urban water supply programmes are done by the engineers in the dzongkhag [there are 20 dzongkhag or administrative and judicial districts in Bhutan] and thromdes [third-level administrative divisions], who are anyway accountable to the human settlement ministry."
That there are about six agencies looking after various aspects of water in the country has resulted in "weak linkages and co-ordination amongst the stakeholders; ineffective implementation of existing policies, lack of capacity and well planned quality infrastructure and a comprehensive data," said the secretary.
The national environment commission is the apex body on water resources, while the economic affairs ministry looks after hydropower development, and the agriculture ministry takes care of watersheds and irrigation in the country. Works and human settlement ministry is responsible for ensuring safe, adequate and potable water supply in the urban areas, while the health ministry ensures safe, adequate and potable water supply in the rural areas.
But the proposal is not as simple as it seems on paper, given the ripple effect it would have on other agencies that also deal with water. The in-principle approval might also call for an amendment of the Water Act, 2011, which has empowered each of these agencies of their responsibilities, as it exists today.
That the health ministry was not consulted about the proposal, or informed about the in-principle approval, has left many in the water programme surprised. "We're in a dilemma now and can't plan our activities because, for us, water and sanitation go together," a public health engineering official said.
While they agree to the human settlement ministry's long-term "vision" of putting all aspects of water under one agency, health officials fear that the water programme "might suffer" by the move. It's also because of water's relation to health and sanitation that the health ministry gets "substantial" support from the World Health Organisation.
In 1998, the rural water supply programme was transferred to the health ministry from the then communications ministry, given "the advantageous position health ministry was to mobilise funds and accelerate" its implementation by involving the health workers at the grassroots level. The transfer was expected to have a much greater impact on the health of the people, as water and sanitation is one of the basic components of primary health care.
Rural water supply coverage was then around 54 per cent, which today has crossed over 90 per cent, said health officials. On the human settlement ministry pointing out that rural water is supplied untreated unlike the urban water supply, public health engineering officials said water sources are pre tested and its quality checked before being supplied to rural homes.
The human settlement ministry also pointed out that, because there is no single agency looking after the water supply, settlements, which fall in the peri-urban areas are catered neither by the rural water supply scheme nor by the urban water supply scheme.
"All traditional system of conservation of water resources and catchment areas, which were sustainable have also been undermined and neglected in all parts of the country," Tenzin said.
By being the central agency for water, the human settlement ministry plans to adopt eco-efficient water infrastructures and water sensitive urban design, by introducing water saving devices and technologies, regular maintenance of water infrastructure, make rainwater harvesting mandatory for every building, and develop impounding reservoir to store water during dry seasons for irrigation and drinking.
Along with the in-principle approval, the cabinet has also directed the Gross National Happiness Commission to review the proposal. Commission officials said they have reviewed and studied the proposal, and would discuss the issue with all agencies involved in a meeting this month.