Australian volunteer Jordi Bates scales some dizzying heights while supporting the Royal Government of Bhutan to balance sustainable development with environmental conservation.
It's not yet 6am as I step out of my apartment into the darkness. Keyvan is waiting outside for me in an old utility truck, its diesel engine spluttering in the cold morning. "Jump in, man, can you believe it? We're actually doing this!" he exclaims.
Keyvan is my international colleague at Bhutan's Department of Forests and Parks Services. He has organised a week-long field trip through the Thimphu Chuu (river) Valley to Barshong, a small Himalayan village of half a dozen houses perched high above the Thimphu Chuu at 3700m altitude. The purpose of our visit is to assess and determine the suitability of the river water as a future drinking source for Thimphu, the country's capital. Thimphu already experiences frequent water shortages, which will be exacerbated as the population is expected to grow by about 50 per cent in the next 30 years.
At Dodena, 20km north of the city along the Thimphu Valley, we meet the rest of our travelling crew: two Bhutanese colleagues, the local forest park officer, a representative from Thimphu municipality and a photographer friend. We are near the entry point to Jigme Dorji National Park - Bhutan's second largest park and home to about 1,000 households and their herds of Yak.
From Dodena, we can only drive a few more kilometres. The rest of the road is under construction and progress is slow because of the unforgiving Himalayan terrain as well as strict environmental controls implemented to protect the river below. From here, we walk. I find it tough but it's no more than a leisurely stroll for our mules who, carrying up to 50kg each, tackle the overgrown paths, river crossings and near vertical cliff faces with ease.
We follow the Thimphu Chuu upstream for several hours. The river is a mix of frightening white water rapids and perfectly still pools trapped between immense boulders. It is also the clearest and cleanest water I have ever seen. With such a pristine upstream catchment, I can't imagine a better candidate to meet Thimphu's future water supply needs.
After walking for eight hours we arrive in Barshong. Our visit to Barshong is timely. A major expansion is planned following a granting of kidu (free land for housing) to about 50 families, by His Majesty the King. While this is a positive development for the local people, a lack of suitable pollution controls could affect the river's water quality downstream and have an impact on the proposed water supply plans. Given the steep valley slopes and heavy rainfall during the monsoon, the Department of Forests and Park Services wants the local development plan to provide for a deep infiltration trench to treat sewage before it can reach the river.
The next day we meet with the area representative - the gup - and several community members. The Thimphu municipal representative and our colleagues describe the proposed water tapping project and how the Barshong people could be compensated for protecting the river from pollution in the form of a Payment for Environmental/ Ecosystem Services (PES) scheme. A PES scheme is when landowners are compensated for managing their land or watersheds to provide an ecological service. Buyers of a particular environmental service, such as the Thimphu Municipality, would pay the providers of that service - in this case the Barshong community - to protect the water supply catchment from any pollution that may occur as a result of the development. My colleagues and I would help to broker the agreement and provide technical assistance to draw up the contract.
During this meeting I start to appreciate the extent to which culture dictates work methods. The gup agrees in principle but there are other complicating factors. He says locals lack the expertise to implement advanced pollution controls and they will not readily accept the burden of purchasing, transporting and installing more materials from Thimphu than absolutely necessary. The road link to Thimphu needs to be fast-tracked too. Until then, Barshong remains a difficult day's walk from the city outskirts.
"Don't worry, this is only the first meeting," whispers one of my Bhutanese colleagues, "we just needed to start the conversation about PES and establish a relationship." I understand that a lack of formal PES scheme does not necessarily mean failure for the overall project. People's entire livelihoods depend on our decisions and I realise that diplomacy and trust are essential cornerstones for a successful outcome.
The next day, we continue our journey further up the Thimphu Valley. Just as darkness begins to fall, we arrive at Tashithang, a village of no more than three yak herders' huts, at an altitude of 4200m. That night, as we camp out in the freezing night (I'm kept warm by three layers of sleeping bags), I think about the yak herding families we have met along the way. In Tashithang they have no electricity, no running water and no way to grow rice or vegetables. Basic supplies, schooling and healthcare are a hard two days' walk away. I can't help but think that in some ways, talk of an environmental PES scheme to protect downstream water users seems incongruous with the hardships needed just to survive in these high mountains.
In the morning I peel away our tent cover, which is frozen solid, to find myself surrounded by about 300 yaks. One by one they are brought into a fenced enclosure next to the hut for milking. Keyvan joins me in gazing at the majestic glacier perched in the mountains directly in front of us.
"We're hiking up to the glacier today, man" he says, and there's no doubting what we are each thinking: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Jordi Bates is a volunteer through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government initiative.