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Reviving dying lakes: Lhayul community in Bhutan's Sarpang district come together to bring dead twin lakes back to life

Photo: UNDP Bhutan
View the full photo essay by UNDP in Bhutan on Exposure here.
Nestled in the northern hills of Bhutan's Sarpang district, Lhayul village is a world away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
At an elevation ranging from 1,149 to 1,838 meters above sea level with stunning views of mountains, the village is home to about 148 households.
Lhayul literally means heaven in Dzongkha. And indeed, this quaint village is a heaven on earth in its own right. The villagers lead refreshingly simple, yet deeply fulfilling life. They are self-sufficient, relying mainly on their ancestral land where they grow rice and vegetables, and cardamom, a prized cash crop that earns them income, and rear livestock for milk and dairy products.
What makes this remote village extra special is that it falls in a critical watershed area.
Besides the inhabitants of Lhayul, the entire Gelephu town of over 10,000 residents rely on water originating from the rich water reserve that Lhayul sits on, continuously recharged by the twin lakes located above the village.
Caption: Perched on the hills overlooking the village are the twin lakes that have been providing water for drinking and irrigation for hundreds of years to the residents of Lhayul. The lakes are deeply revered by the locals as "sacred treasures."
Villagers said the twin lakes, Lhayul's treasure trove, started drying up around 2010. Multiple factors contributed to the lakes' disappearance.
Adjacent to the lakes, the incessant landslides caused by surface runoff from the ridge are suspected to have disturbed the underground aquifer of the lakes. Climate change is thought to be another contributing factor that caused the lakes to go bone dry.
In 2019, the Gelephu municipality and Divisional Forest Office in Sarpang under the Department of Forests and Park Services acted.
The office teamed up with the Dzongkhag and Gewog Administration and members of the community and adopted an innovative, inclusive and sustainable approach to revive the lakes with support from the National Adaptation Programme of Action "NAPA III" project funded by the Global Environment Facility-Least Developed Countries Fund, and implemented by the Royal Government of Bhutan with technical support from UNDP
One of the lakes covers an area of 0.50 acres and the other 0.20 acres. The revival effort began with the excavation of the lakes’ areas. A depth of 1.5 meters each was dug.
Two trenches, each measuring 300 meters in length, were dug to prevent the surface runoff from the ridge and onto the landslide area. The trenches will help divert the rain-fed streams towards the lakes and restore their self-recharging capacity.
Eight stone check dams and seven log check dams were constructed along the lake stream course to regulate surface runoff, increase infiltration, and avoid forming V shape gullies inside the trenches. 
Forester Kezang Dhendup and Jigme Tenzin led the lake revival effort. A year after completion of the check dams, the two visit the village to monitor the stone check-dams to ensure they are intact as monsoon approaches.
The team also carried out a plantation of 6,000 ever-green and fast-growing plant species around the periphery of the lakes and along the trenches to stabilize the areas and mitigate risks of slides.
The work to rehabilitate the dying twin lakes in Lhayul were completed in June 2022. Lhayul's treasure trove were successfully restored to its former glory. Villagers couldn't be happier.
"I can't imagine a day without water. I need water to prepare daily meals. My daily life comes to a standstill when I have to face days without water." - Sabitra Humangai
"I was born and raised in Lhayul. I served as a local leader from 1996 to 2011. After retirement, I resumed farming. The lakes used to be full and served as a water source not just for us and our livestock but also for wildlife. During our time, we played our role in protecting the lakes. We even adopted the area as a community forest to ensure that the watershed is not disturbed. We were saddened to see the lakes drying up, affecting our water supply. As a village elder, I was worried about the future of our children- what would they do without water? Thanks to the project, our children's future is secured." - Chabi Lal Ghimeray
"I completed my Diploma in Materials and Procurement Management from Jigme Namgyel Engineering College in 2019. I saw myself working in one of the offices in Thimphu. But, life had a different plan for me. I ended up staying back in my village helping my parents with farm work. That's when it struck me that I might as well do something beneficial for the entire village. So, I contested in the 2022 local government elections and got elected as the village Tshongpa (local leader). The lake revival project began around the same time I started my career as a Tshogpa. Unlike in recent years, we have enough water for drinking and irrigation this year. Water scarcity is not an issue anymore." - Narendra Ghimray, Tshogpa (local leader)
"I was raised by a single mother after our father had passed away. I just completed my class 12 and I am waiting to go to college. You will notice in Lhayul that there aren't many young people. Mostly, elderly and parents are left to work in the field. Without young people, life is hard. Without young people and adequate water, life is terrible. I am happy at least the water scarcity is now resolved. This will make my mother's life in Lhayul easier." - Heera Maya Dahal
"The lake revival project involved all members of Lhayul. Everyone, including women, came together to contribute labour to clear the lake on days end. Our collective efforts has paid off. The more we preserve our lakes, the better our lives will be. We are ready to do whatever it takes to keep the lakes alive forever." - Rita Gurung
The villagers of Lhayul play a vital role as an upstream community that is responsible for protecting the watershed, which is a critical water source for thousands living in Gelephu Thromde.
In an effort to ensure effective management and long-term protection of the watershed through community engagement, the Divisional Forest Office in Sarpang with technical assistance from the Watershed Management Division helped initiate what is known as a Payment for Environmental Services Scheme (PES).
PES, simply put, refers to payments made to farmers or landowners who have agreed to take certain actions to manage their land or watersheds to provide an ecological service.
Lhayul villagers are Environment Service providers for Gelephu municipality.
As an Environmental Service user, the Gelephu municipality pay a nominal fee to Lhayul community and in return, be ensured that the watershed will be well-taken care of. Therein, a sustainable plough-back financing mechanism was put in place for the long-term protection of the watershed.
"Lhayul is an important upstream community for us. We are happy to collaborate with Divisional Forest Office in Sarpang and members of Lhayul to ensure the watershed is protected. In return for their assurance that they will protect the watershed, we are willing to pay a nominal fees as an compensation. We are collecting monthly sum of Nu. 10 per user and will hand it over to the community annually. It is a win-win situation." - Tshering Norbu, Thrompoen (Mayor) of Gelephu Thromde (Municipality)
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