13 – Jordi’s work

I’m handing over the reigns to Jordi for this post on his experiences so far of working in Bhutan ….

As it’s been almost 6 months since I have been here, it’s probably high time I shared some insights about my work, which after all is the reason I’m here. It’s not all just hiking, running, cycling etc. There’s also some serious work to be done…

jordi riding to work

So what is it that I actually do? Well, I’m here as a water engineer working with the Department of Forests, which sits under the Ministry of Agriculture. Most people find it strange that I’m under this ministry. So do I.

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My actual work team is known as the Watershed Management Division, or WMD (an unfortunate acronym). It’s a small and relatively new division having only been created 4 years ago and it’s fair to say they are still finding their feet. Its mandate is to provide technical and policy advice on Bhutan’s catchments in terms of land use, water quality issues, flooding etc. Comparable organisations back at home would be the NSW Catchment Management Authorities (now defunct).

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The WMD is responsible for catchment management across all of Bhutan which is challenging because of the complex relationship between environmental protection and the subsistence livelihoods of the local inhabitants. Also, there is little or no technical information available for much of the country’s catchments and the WMD team has limited resources to collect more data. Most of the country is highly inaccessible for starters and many catchments need to be assessed on foot. Even the smallest catchments can take weeks to investigate being several days hike to reach as there are no roads.  All in all it’s quite a big task for a team of 12.

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The WMD office has a very flat structure with all staff reporting to one manager. “Chief”, as he is known, is the WMD representative, office manager, HR manager, project director on all projects and generally has authority over everything. “I will speak to Chief” is a common response to most questions.

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As with all government offices in Bhutan, it is mandatory for staff to wear traditional dress to work (gho for men, kira for women) although chillups are permitted to wear western office attire. I actually really like seeing everyone in traditional dress and so I try to wear my gho as much as possible as well. On the other hand, the weather has been pretty hot lately and my gho doesn’t breathe well.

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A typical day for me in Thimphu will be spent in the office building, which we share with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). I guess an office is an office is an office so it’s really not that different to back home, except that this one is a little more rustic, more crowded, and there’s a few more electrical cables lying around on the floor for people to trip over. All the staff are Bhutanese except for 2 “chillups” (foreigners) being me and a Dutch volunteer who’s actually Iranian, grew up in America and was previously living in the Solomon Islands. Interesting chap. It’s good to chew the fat with him over lunch at the restaurant next door. Buffet course for $2.50 or a bowl of chow mien noodles for $1.50. Naan or roti bread for 20 cents.

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One of the most important tasks for the WMD team is to assess the current state of all the catchments across the country, firstly through a coarse and largely desktop-based assessment of entire river basins, and then with a more detailed assessment of the critical or degraded catchments within each basin. One of my key work objectives for this year is to review and revise the current catchment classification system to determine which catchments are critical.

My other major work objective is to help develop management plans for the critical catchments. These are generally quite complex as any recommendations for land management interventions or river protection measures need to be developed in coordination with the local communities and other relevant stakeholders.

One of the catchments I am currently working on is in Wangdue, which is the next main valley heading east from Thimphu. Water from this catchment is used for drinking purposes in the large nearby town of Bajo, so water quality is critical. On a recent site visit we collected water samples which showed that the raw water is actually reasonable, except during the monsoon period (ie: now) when high sediment loads are discharged into the river.

Bay Chhu watershed

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The last few months have been relatively quiet for me work-wise. Budgets ran out before the end-of-financial year and then it took a while for budgets to be approved at the start of the new financial year! Also, field visits are less than popular at this time of year due to the threat of landslides and road closure.

My biggest challenges so far at work have been communication and fitting into the Bhutanese work culture. I don’t speak a word of Dzongkha which doesn’t help. That’s my fault, no one else’s. But it’s more than just the language barrier, Bhutanese culture dictates a very indirect communication style. Anyone who’s worked in Asia probably knows what I mean.

The next couple of months are likely to be busier.  I’m planning a field trip for a catchment study near Trongsa in the centre of the country.  All in all I’m enjoying the challenge and looking forward to the next 6 months.

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