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Climate Legislation: Protecting the vulnerable Communities

The Bhutan Climate Conclave, which took place this week, is admirable and demonstrates the government’s commitment to inclusive decision-making processes. The conclave aimed to ensure active participation of all relevant stakeholders in shaping the future climate agenda by incorporating diverse voices and perspectives. Several technical presentations at the conclave, however, highlighted the numerous challenges that Bhutan faces as a result of climate change, such as rising temperatures, erratic weather patterns, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters. While enacting a climate change policy is a step in the right direction, it is critical to go beyond policy frameworks and translate them into tangible actions on the ground.

Bhutan has gained international recognition as a champion of environmental and natural preservation. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement, and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer have all been ratified by the country. Bhutan has also declared its intention to achieve carbon neutrality. Bhutan has fulfilled many of its obligations under these conventions and commitments, making significant contributions to the world and deserving of praise for its commitment to climate change and climate justice.

However, despite these achievements, there is limited awareness and often a disregard for climate change and climate justice among the general population. Climate justice is even less discussed, understood, and achieved among the stakeholders. The Climate Change Policy 2020 recognises the broad impact of climate change and the need for comprehensive and effective coordination across all relevant sectors and levels. While the policy offers various mechanisms for addressing climate justice, it lacks clarity and specific provisions for supporting vulnerable populations affected by climate change.

Climate change has a significant and complex impact on Bhutan’s population.  According to a recent report by Kuensel, the country has experienced 32 extreme weather events in the last seven years, resulting in flash floods, landslides, loss of life, crop and property destruction, and displacement of local communities. Similarly, heavy rain caused 11 families in Martang, Dewathang, and Samdrupjongkhar to become homeless, and the gewog administration was forced to relocate all 28 households of the chiwog to Namshiwoong because Martang is no longer suitable for settlement.

Similarly, in 2021, a devastating tragedy occurred in Laya, killing ten highlanders and injuring many more when their tents were swept away by a landslip. Aside from these tragedies, Bhutan is also dealing with a severe water shortage, which affects both drinking water and agricultural purposes. This is a major concern that requires immediate attention to ensure people’s well-being and the sustainability of the country’s agriculture.

While there are laws that address climate justice issues, they only provide fragmented solutions. Individuals who have lost their lives or economic opportunities as a result of climate change-related water crises or disasters, for example, have no recourse. Bhutan’s Constitution designates every Bhutanese citizen as a trustee of the country’s natural resources, while the state is responsible for creating favourable conditions for the pursuit of happiness. 

The Constitution also requires a minimum of 60 percent forest cover at all times. As a result, enacting a comprehensive climate change law with a focus on climate justice for vulnerable populations is critical. Despite the limited political gains, this legislation must include incentives and compensation for those affected by climate change.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.