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Bhutan secures $8.9 million from GEF Least Developed Countries Fund towards a more climate-resilient water sector

Photo: UNDP Bhutan
Thimphu, 24 April 2023 – The Global Environment Facility’s Least Developed Countries Fund has approved US$8.9 million towards a UNDP-supported project addressing water shortages and declining water quality in Bhutan, twin trends driven by global climate change. With $25 million in co-financing from the Royal Government, the 5-year project, “Advancing Climate Resilience of the Water Sector in Bhutan (ACREWAS)”, will benefit more than 37,000 people in the three Dzongkhags (districts) of Gasa, Punakha, and Tsriang, some of the most climate vulnerable regions of the country. 
“Climate change is predicted to result in a decline in Bhutan’s agricultural production from 4% to 10% in the absence of adaptation measures,” said Lyonpo Dorji Tshering, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. “We welcome this important transformative project, to be led by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, which will promote nature-based solutions driven by communities, institutions, and private sector.” 
On the ground, the project will restore and manage water catchments, introduce climate-resilient agricultural practices and livelihoods, and climate-proof water storage and irrigation infrastructure.  
At a governance level, the project will look at increasing the coherence of national and local policies related to climate-resilient water resource management, also strengthening the capacity of government and community-based institutions to manage these resources in an efficient, innovative and sustainable way. 
With an eye to the future, financial mechanisms will be established to encourage public-private and entrepreneur participation in water resource management including in operations and maintenance. Innovative conservation financing solutions such as the Payment for Environment Services (PES) will be introduced, offering farmers incentives to sustainably manage their land.  
“The impacts of climate change on water pose a significant threat to sustainable development in Bhutan,” said Mr. Mohammad Younus, UNDP Bhutan Resident Representative. “Building on Bhutan's strong commitment and leadership on sustainable development and environmental conservation, this project will help enhance the climate resilience of the water sector, thus helping safeguard the nation’s economic development and social well-being, including people’s livelihoods, food security, and health.” 
Climate projections for Bhutan suggest an increase in temperatures likely to trigger heat waves and droughts and contribute to glacial and snow melt. Rapid changes in average temperatures and rainfall patterns are the biggest threat to farmers, who depend on the monsoon and rain-fed agriculture. Already the country has seen an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, and landslides. These events are affecting the country's economy and having significant consequences for rural and peri-urban communities dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.  
The ACREWAS project is aligned with the Royal Government of Bhutan’s development plans and priorities, National Adaptation Plan (expected to be launched this year), and Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. 
A wide range of stakeholders will be engaged to deliver the project, including communities, government institutions, civil society organizations, academia, and entrepreneurs and private sector players involved in the operations and maintenance of water distribution.  
Among the project’s outcomes: 
  • 19,391 farmers (almost half of them women) will have assured access to irrigation and domestic water through climate-proofing and enhancement of water infrastructure 
  • 41,910 hectares of land will be restored/ brought under climate-resilient management 
  • 38,518 hectares of watersheds will be restored and protected 
  • 3,392 hectares of agricultural land will be brought under climate-resilient practices including adoption of climate-smart agricultural technologies  
  • 74 kilometres of water transmission and distribution lines will be “climate-proofed” and automated with Internet of Things (IoT) and ICT based technologies 
A key component of the project is also to share knowledge and raise awareness in relation to climate-resilience water resource management. 
UNDP’s climate change adaption portfolio has supported 62 countries – including 34 Least Developed Countries – to implement Integrated Water Resource Management solutions, benefiting more than 5.6 million people and making more than 2.8 million hectares of ecosystems more resilient to climate change. 
Notes to editor 
In most parts of Bhutan, farming is done on steep and moderate slopes, susceptible to erosion, landslides and other forms of land degradation induced by climate change.  
Increases in temperatures, particularly during the dry season, have severe implications for crop production and productivity of ecosystems. Temperature rise significantly increases water demands of major crops, and, on average, reduces yields of several important cereals, highlighting the need for reliable irrigation as a means of mitigating climate change impacts. 
Nature-based solutions for the rehabilitation and restoration of catchment watersheds include physical and vegetative measures such as plantation, removal of exotic species and replantation of native species to restore biodiversity and hydrology, establishment of site-specific micro check dams to stop runoff along steep natural drains, and enhanced protection of watersheds through monitoring. 
Nawaraj Chhetri | Portfolio Manager a.i, Environment and Livelihoods Unit, UNDP Bhutan | 
Sonam Y. Rabgye | Programme Analyst and project focal point, UNDP Bhutan |