How Climate Change is Affecting the Children of Bhutan

29/11/2012 10:37 GMT | Updated 29/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Growing up in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I would often see crows perched on nearby trees and on the rooftops of our homes. We would chase them as they tried to pick up food that was kept to dry out in the sun. Ten years on, it has become rare to hear the cawing of the crows, let alone see them. The people of Bhutan lack hard data to prove that climate change is occurring here, but we see its effects on a daily basis. For children growing up here today, the life and landscape of Bhutan is dramatically different.

The effects of climate change are a constant presence to the children of Bhutan. We have 25 glacial lakes that are known to be at a dangerous risk of flooding. Steps are being taken to prevent disasters - glacier water from the Thorthormi Lake is now regularly drained to avoid a repeat of the terrible glacial flood of 1994 - but the threat is ever present

The weather pattern in Bhutan has also become more unpredictable and extreme over recent years. Farmers are losing their harvest due to untimely rain, and every winter we see less ice and snow covering the rocks. Children in local schools talk about how their parents are finding it hard to judge the weather so they can plant their crops and how snow in winter is no longer enough to build a snowman. Such fun winter past-times might soon be the last of their concerns; as temperatures increase in the south of the country we have seen a rise in malaria and dengue fever, with cases of both diseases reported in areas that were previously risk free.

It has become a common theme for District officials to talk about how rain patterns have changed over the past 20 years; the rains used to be predictable, building over a period of days meaning so that people could prepare for the effects. Now, there are sudden freak downpours, often concentrated in one area rather than spread across the region.

The situation is a grave one with Bhutan becoming increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but UNICEF is working to address the dangers for children across the country. One of the pillars of Bhutan's development concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is Environment Conservation. Bhutan is perhaps the first country in the world whose Constitution states that a minimum of 60 per cent of the country's total land be maintained under forest cover for all time. It makes it a fundamental duty of every citizen to protect and conserve the rich biodiversity of Bhutan by adopting environment friendly practices.

The government's 'Educating for GNH' in schools is an initiative supported by UNICEF. Teachers are trained to become role models and work together with the students to create Green Schools where children are encouraged to respect and value nature. Students compete in schools, not only for academic excellence, but to develop and maintain the best gardens and to learn how to grow vegetables. The Pedestrian Day introduced since June 2012 - on every Tuesdays and now on the first Sunday of every month - is seen as a small step towards reducing pollution, towards finding the balance and living in harmony with nature.

Climate change is already having an effect on the lives of children in Bhutan. That's why UNICEF is working to support the government through its water and sanitation projects in schools, especially ones that have been affected by climate change disasters. UNICEF also supports programmes of disaster risk reduction and preparedness of children in time of natural disasters so they know what to do help keep themselves safe. We can't prevent weather patterns from changing and becoming more extreme but we can make sure our children are better trained in how to deal with them.

As our Kings have said: "The future of our nation lies in the hands of our children."

It is our hope that through teaching the younger generation to nurture, value and respect the environment they will continue to enjoy Bhutan's rich biodiversity for many years to come and the impact of climate change on their lives and those of future children in Bhutan will be lessened as a result.