Famed for valuing Gross National Happiness over economic growth, Bhutan is a poster child for sustainable development. However, booming car sales might impact efforts to preserve its rare status as a carbon negative country — and an increase in traffic is testing the good humor of its citizens.
Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades, Bhutanese Road Safety and Transport Authority Director-General Pemba Wangchuk said, with the capital, Thimphu, hardest hit by the influx of vehicles.
Phuntsho Wangdi, a media consultant, said the congestion and lack of parking make driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic lights.
“I wish there were fewer cars. It wasn’t like this before,” he said of life in Thimphu, which is home to half the vehicles in the nation.
The Bhutanese economy has grown 7.5 percent each year in the past decade, according to the World Bank.
Officials estimate there is now one car for every seven people in Bhutan, which has a total population of 750,000.
However, the nation’s narrow country lanes and outdated city roads can barely cope.
A lack of infrastructure, along with poor driving etiquette — some simply leave their cars parked in the middle of the road — compounds the problem.
“Every year the number of cars and the number of people are increasing, and the roads have remained the same, and it’s a problem for us,” taxi driver Lhendup said.
Morning rush hour journeys that once took five minutes now take more than half an hour. This might seem a small figure compared with the hours of gridlock faced by commuters in Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok, but it is a step-change for the Bhutanese who say the situation has rapidly deteriorated in the past year.
“Its chaotic. I eat my breakfast in the car now to save time,” said Kuenzang Choden, who drops her four-year-old daughter at school every day before heading to work.
The traffic jams are a sign of the wider economic changes the nation is facing.
Bhutan is renowned for prioritizing Gross National Happiness over GDP, and has captured tourists’ imagination as a tranquil, idyllic land, but there are signs of malcontent.
According to last year’s World Bank report, the youth unemployment rate is high, as is rural-to-urban migration, which puts a strain on the resources of towns and cities.
The proliferation of the Internet and smartphones are fueling modern desires, while dealers are filling their showrooms with new brands and models from Japan and South Korea to lure buyers.
And while taxes have increased and restrictions put on vehicle loans, car buyers are not discouraged.
Local financial institutions gave 3.2 billion ngultrum (US$46 million) in car loans in 2015, but by last year the amount had reached 6.7 billion ngultrum.
The figures please local businesspeople, but worry environmentalists keen to ensure Bhutan remains one of the world’s greenest countries.
“As a nation that prides itself on being a carbon-negative country, the increase in the number of fossil fuel vehicles speaks poorly of our leadership position in environmental conservation,” environmental activist Yeshey Dorji said.
Bhutan and Suriname, both with lush forests, are the only two countries to claim they are carbon negative, absorbing more carbon pollution than they give off.
Methane from cows, the burning of crops and other farm activities used to be Bhutan’s main source of greenhouse gases — but that has changed in recent years to industry and cars.
Bhutan’s constitution dictates that at least 60 percent of the country must be forest and the figure is currently above 70 percent.
However, the nation is now importing more in fossil fuels than it exports in hydropower to India — the nation’s biggest revenue earner.
Public transport is poor, particularly in Thimphu, which is home to 100,000 people, but barely 40 buses.
Thimphu Mayor Kinlay Dorji plans to introduce bus-only lanes on city roads and wants to buy more buses.
“Its time for radical measures,” he said.
“We have to make public transport more attractive and discourage owning cars,” he said, adding that unless action was taken, Thimphu risked grinding to a standstill.
To ease congestion, the city is also constructing its first two multi-story car parks that will each take about 600 cars.
The National Environment Commission insists Bhutan is still carbon negative despite the traffic jams and vehicle boom, but wants to stop things worsening.
“We cannot stop people from buying cars, but we can introduce alternative, less polluting cars such as the hybrid and electric ones to reduce carbon footprint,” commission Secretary Dasho Sonam Wangdi said.
An Australian university student who has never visited China and has only a modest social media following would seem an unlikely target for the Chinese government. However, when a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman personally denounced Drew Pavlou at a news conference, it was just the next phase in an extraordinary campaign against the 21-year-old that has fueled concerns over China’s targeting of critics overseas. Pavlou first placed himself in the superpower’s sights when in July last year he organized a small sit-in at the University of Queensland, where he studies, to protest against various Chinese government policies. Since then, the Global
‘ASKED TO MOVE OUT’: Indonesian coast guard personnel argued with a Chinese vessel over territorial claims after it entered the country’s exclusive economic zone An Indonesian patrol ship confronted a Chinese coast guard vessel that spent almost three days in waters where Indonesia claims economic rights and that are near the southernmost part of China’s disputed claims to the South China Sea. The Indonesian Maritime Security Agency on Friday night detected Chinese ship 5204 entering Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in what Indonesia calls the North Natuna Sea. The agency sent a patrol ship that closed within 1km of the Chinese coast guard vessel and they communicated to affirm their position and their nation’s claims to the area, Indonesian Maritime Security Agency head Aan Kurnia said. “We
BEFORE WINTER COMES: Snow cuts off roads into Ladakh for four months or more each year, so the crunch is on to get food, tents and high-altitude equipment to Leh From deploying mules to large transport aircraft, the Indian military has activated its entire logistics network to transport supplies to thousands of troops for a harsh winter along a bitterly disputed Himalayan border with China. In the past few months, one of India’s biggest military logistics exercises in years has brought vast quantities of ammunition, equipment, fuel, winter supplies and food into Ladakh, a region bordering Tibet that India administers as a union territory, officials said. The move was triggered by a border standoff with China in the snow deserts of Ladakh that began in May and escalated in June into hand-to-hand
Since her personal telephone number was posted online, Hong Kong democracy advocate and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions chairperson Carol Ng has received menacing calls from strangers and been bombarded with messages calling her a “cockroach.” She is not alone. A sophisticated and shady Web site called HK Leaks has ramped up its “doxxing” — where people’s personal details are published online — of Hong Kong democracy advocates, targeting those it says have broken Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Promoted by groups linked to the Chinese Chinese Communist Party and hosted on Russia-based servers, HK Leaks has become the most prominent “doxxing”