Future

How Melting Glaciers And 'Mountain Tsunamis' Threaten Himalayan Kingdom Of Bhutan

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas put the small Kingdom of Bhutan at risk. Not only are the “frozen reservoirs” a fundamental water source, but the melting can also cause GLOFS – aka: 'mountain tsunamis' - killer flash floods that occur

On the Druk Path Trek between Timphu and Paro in Bhutan
On the Druk Path Trek between Timphu and Paro in Bhutan
Julien Bouissou

THIMPU -- The Kingdom of Bhutan, tucked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range, is paying the price for global industrialization. To the north of the country, a chain of Himalayan glaciers suffer increasingly unstable rates of melting and concerns about the long-term viability of the ice in the face of global warming.

Water flows from these melting glaciers until it breaks the natural ice dams that hold it in place. That, in turn, can result in devastating floods like the one that occurred in 1994, when a torrent of mud killed dozens of people in Bhutan and wiped out entire villages. Western scientists call this phenomenon a glacial lake outburst flood, or GLOF. With 24 of its 2,674 glacial lakes considered unstable, Bhutan is preparing in the coming years for even deadlier "mountain tsunamis," as the phenomenon is sometimes referred to.

Bhutan is one of the first countries in the world to make GLOF prevention a national priority. In 2005, the government received environmental protection funds financed in part by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The money was earmarked in part to help Bhutan drain water from the Thorthormi glacial lake and reinforce its natural dams. But at that high altitude, the work is difficult, dangerous and ultimately costly.

The air is too thin for helicopters to be of much use. Instead, a group of some 350 residents had to hike 10 days in order to set up a base camp at 5,000-meter elevation. From there, volunteer students, retired soldiers and traditionally-clothed villagers work knee-deep in glacial water, using the few tools they have to try and open a drain canal and build stone walls to reinforce the lake. Every year their efforts are interrupted by the arrival of winter.

"Thanks to satellite imagery, it's possible to identify the most dangerous glaciers. But it's impossible to say when or where a catastrophe will happen," says Pradeep Mool, an engineer with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Researchers take various factors into account when assessing GLOF risk: topography, the likelihood of avalanches that could cause a lake to overflow, how solid a glacial lake's natural dykes are and the volume of water the lake contains.

The causes of glacial floods are various and difficult to evaluate. And at high altitude, in extreme climate conditions, collecting such information can be extremely dangerous. Dowchu Dukpa, an engineer with Bhutan's Ministry of the Environment, recalls how scientists struggled to measure water levels on Thorthormi Lake. "The winds were extremely strong, and almost capsized the researchers' boat," he said.

Authorities have identified certain high-risk zones and, in an effort to save lives, prohibited construction in those areas. They now plan to set up an electronic alert system. Sensors placed in the glacial lakes will keep track of water levels. If the level quickly drops, a message will be relayed by SMS so that residents – alerted via cell phones – will know to seek shelter.

Water woes for 750 million?

Although these "tsunamis from above" may be the most immediate danger, they are not the only threat facing the people of Bhutan. As the Himalayan glaciers disappear, so too will the rivers on which the Kingdom depends. Water, after all, is the country's most precious resource. Bhutan depends on it to irrigate its fields, which support thousands of farmers, and to feed its hydroelectric plants, which generate about 40% of the country's wealth each year. Water is to Bhutan what oil is to Kuwait.

Decreasing water levels in the rivers will also have an impact on countries farther downstream, potential affecting the entire region. Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculate that the melting of the Himalayan glaciers will cause water supply problems for some 750 million people.

Even though Bhutan is hardly responsible for climate change, it nevertheless wants to be a world leader in sustainable development. Thanks to the forests that cover 82% of its territory, it is one of the few countries on the planet to absorb more greenhouse gasses that it emits. Written into the constitution, in fact, is a commitment to keep at least 60% of its territory forested.

Says Ugyen Tshewang, who directs Bhutan's national environmental commission" "We're threatened by the melting glaciers, yet we cannot exert any pressure on the industrialized countries."

CORRECTION: Le Monde's original version of this article referred to a 2007 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which stated that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. In 2010 the IPCC retracted that report, calling it inaccurate; there is no known date by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to disappear.

Read the original article in French (subscription required)

Photo - jmhullot

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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