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Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan. It is a Buddhist monastery and seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan's civil government. Source: Christopher J. Fynn/Wikipedia


Bhutan is a nation just over 700,000 people in southern Asia, between China and India. Violent storms from the Himalayas are the source of the country's name, which translates as Land of the Thunder Dragon. Landlocked, Bhutan has a strategic location between China and India and controls several key Himalayan mountain passes

Its major environmental issues include soil erosion and limited access to potable water. In addition to violent storms, Bhutan is susceptible to frequent landslides during the rainy season.

One of the highest mountain reliefs on Earth can be found in Bhutan. Sandwiched between eastern India and the Tibetan plateau, Bhutan hosts peaks that reach between 5,000 and 7,000 meters (16,000-23,000 feet) in height. These mountains are neighbors to Mount Everest, Earth’s highest peak at 8,850 meters (29,035 feet). The impressive Bhutan Himalayas are permanently capped with snow, which extends down valleys in long glacier tongues. Because of weather patterns on each side of the Himalaya and differences in topography, the glaciers on each side of the mountain are distinctly different from one another and are likely to react very differently to climate change.

In 1865, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding some border land to British India.

Under British influence, a monarchy was set up in 1907; three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs. This role was assumed by independent India after 1947. Two years later, a formal Indo-Bhutanese accord returned the areas of Bhutan annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India's responsibilities in defense and foreign relations.

A refugee issue of over 100,000 Bhutanese in Nepal remains unresolved; 90% of the refugees are housed in seven United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camps.

In March 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuckz unveiled the government's draft constitution - which would introduce major democratic reforms - and pledged to hold a national referendum for its approval. In December 2006, the King abdicated the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckz, in order to give him experience as head of state before the democratic transition.

In early 2007, India and Bhutan renegotiated their treaty to allow Bhutan greater autonomy in conducting its foreign policy, although Thimphu continues to coordinate policy decisions in this area with New Delhi. In July 2007, seven ministers of Bhutan's 10-member cabinet resigned to join the political process, and the cabinet acted as a caretaker regime until democratic elections for seats to the country's first parliament were completed in March 2008.

The king ratified the country's first constitution in July 2008.

Lacking any treaty describing the boundary, Bhutan and China continue negotiations to establish a common boundary alignment to resolve territorial disputes arising from substantial cartographic discrepancies, the largest of which lie in Bhutan's northwest and along the Chumbi salient. Bhutan protests Chinese road construction and other activities on Bhutanese soil. Chinese border soldiers frequently intrude deep into Bhutanese territory.

Bhutan cooperates with India to expel Indian Nagaland separatists.

caption Glimpses of the Bhutan Himalayas. Source: Saikat Basu. own work


Location: Southern Asia, between China and India

Geographic Coordinates: 27 30 N, 90 30 E

Area: 38,394 sq km

Land Boundaries: 1,075 km (China 470 km, India 605 km)

Natural Hazards: violent storms from the Himalayas are the source of the country's name, which translates as Land of the Thunder Dragon. Frequent landslides during the rainy season

Terrain:   mostly mountainous with some fertile valleys and savanna. The highest point is Gangkar Puensum (7,570 m) and the lowest point Drangeme Chhu (97 m).

Climate: varies; tropical in southern plains; cool winters and hot summers in central valleys; severe winters and cool summers in Himalayas


Topography of Bhutan. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Ecology and Biodiversity

Ecoregions of Bhutan. Source: World Wildlife Fund

From North to South, Bhutans ecoregions are:

  1. Eastern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows (Blue)
  2. Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests (Aqua)
  3. Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests (Light Yellow)
  4. Himalayan subtropical pine forests (Sky Blue)
  5. Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests (Mid-yellow)
  6. Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands (Dark Yellow)
Haa Valley, Bhutan. Source: Douglas J. McLaughlin/Wikipedia
Gangkhar Puensum from Cher-tang-la (Pronounced: shea-tang-la), Bhutan. Source: Wikipedia
The Takin (Bhutan's national animal). Source: Stephen Shephard

The transistion from the Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests ecoregion to the Brahmaputra Valley semi-evergreen forests ecoregion of northern Indian approximately follows the southern border of Bhutan.

People and Society

Population: 716,896 (July 2012 est.)

The people of Bhutan can be divided into three broad ethnic categories--Ngalops, Sharchops, and Lhotsampas. The Ngalops make up the majority of the population, living mostly in the western and central areas. The Ngalops are thought to be of Tibetan origin, arriving in Bhutan during the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. and bringing Buddhism with them. Most Ngalops follow the Drukpa Kagyupa discipline of Mahayana Buddhism. In a country that is deeply rooted within the Buddhist religion, many people's sect of religion, as opposed to their ethnic group, characterizes them. The Ngalops predominate in the government, and the civil service and their cultural norms have been declared by the monarchy to be the standard for all citizens.

The Sharchops, who live in the eastern section of Bhutan, are considered to be descendants of the earliest major group to inhabit Bhutan. Most follow the Ningmapa discipline of Mahayana Buddhism. Sharchop is translated as "people of the east." The Ngalops, Sharchops, and the indigenous tribal people are collectively known as Drukpas and account for about 65% of the population. The national language is Dzongkha, but English is the language of instruction in schools and an official working language for the government.

The Lhotsampas are people of Nepali descent, currently making up 35% of the population. They came to Bhutan in the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly settling in the southern foothills to work as farmers. They speak a variety of Nepali dialects and are predominantly Hindu.

Ethnic groups: Bhote 50%, ethnic Nepalese 35% (includes Lhotsampas - one of several Nepalese ethnic groups), indigenous or migrant tribes 15%

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 28.9% (male 104,622/female 100,383)
15-64 years: 65.3% (male 245,054/female 217,864)
65 years and over: 5.7% (male 21,347/female 19,157) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 1.175% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 18.75 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 6.99 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: 0 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 67.88 years 

male: 67.01 years
female: 68.79 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 2.13 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Sharchhopka 28%, Dzongkha (official) 24%, Lhotshamkha 22%, other 26% (2005 Census)

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): 47% (2003 est.)

Urbanization: 35% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 3.7%  (2010-15 est.)


Bhutan's early history is steeped in mythology and remains obscure. It may have been inhabited as early as 2000 B.C., but not much was known until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century A.D. when turmoil in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan. In the 12th century A.D., the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. The country's political history is intimately tied to its religious history and the relations among the various monastic schools and monasteries.

The consolidation of Bhutan occurred in 1616 when Ngawana Namgyal, a lama from Tibet, defeated three Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious schools, codified an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established himself as ruler (shabdrung) over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators. After his death, infighting and civil war eroded the power of the shabdrung for the next 200 years when in 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck was able to consolidate power and cultivated closer ties with the British in India.

In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan, crowned on December 17, 1907, and installed as the head of state Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). In 1910, King Ugyen and the British signed the Treaty of Punakha which provided that British India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan if the country accepted external advice in its external relations. When Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926, his son Jigme Wangchuck became the next ruler, and when India gained independence in 1947, the new Indian Government recognized Bhutan as an independent country.

In 1949, India and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which provided that India would not interfere in Bhutan's internal affairs but would be guided by India in its foreign policy. Succeeded in 1952 by his son Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan began to slowly emerge from its isolation and began a program of planned development. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971, and during his tenure the National Assembly was established and a new code of law, as well as the Royal Bhutanese Army and the High Court.

In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne at age 16. He emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments. He was perhaps best known internationally for his overarching development philosophy of "Gross National Happiness." It recognizes that there are many dimensions to development and that economic goals alone are not sufficient. Satisfied with Bhutan's transitioning democratization process, he abdicated in December 2006 rather than wait until the promulgation of the new constitution in 2008. His son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, became King upon his abdication.

In February 2007, India and Bhutan signed a new treaty removing the clause that India will "guide" Bhutan's foreign policy and allowing Bhutan to purchase military equipment from other countries. However, bilateral ties remain close,


Traditionally a decentralized theocracy and, since 1907, a monarchy, Bhutan completed its successful transition to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. Bhutanese officials began preparations for the first-ever elections in 2006, shortly before King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in December 2006. The National Council of the new bicameral parliament was elected in December 2007, and National Assembly elections followed in March 2008. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) won 44 out of 47 seats in the latter election in which 80% of the 320,000 registered voters cast a ballot.

Migration by Nepalis into southern Bhutan began in the early 19th century. Currently these and other ethnic Nepalis, referred to as Lhotsampas, comprise 35% of Bhutan's population. In 1988, the government census led to the branding of many ethnic Nepalis as illegal immigrants. Local Lhotshampa leaders responded with anti-government rallies demanding citizenship and attacks against government institutions. Between 1988-1993, thousands of ethnic Nepalis fled to refugee camps in Nepal alleging ethnic and political repression. As of January 20, 2010, 85,544 refugees resided in seven camps. Bhutan and Nepal have been working for over seven years to resolve the refugee problem and repatriate certain refugees living in Nepal. The resettlement of Bhutanese refugees from the camps in Nepal to the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand is proceeding, with over 26,000 refugees repatriated to third countries (over 23,000 are now settled in the U.S.). The transition to democracy may improve the situation: of its 47 candidates, the DPT fielded nine Nepali speakers. Officials from both the DPT and PDP have said that resolving the grievances of ethnic Nepalis is a priority.

The spiritual head of Bhutan, the Je Khempo--the only person besides the king who wears the saffron scarf, an honor denoting his authority over all religious institutions--is nominated by monastic leaders and appointed by the king. The Monk Body is involved in advising the government on many levels.

Government Type: constitutional monarchy

Capital: Thimphu (population: 89,000 - est. 2009)

Administrative Divisions: Bhutan is divided into 20 districts or dzongkhags, each headed by a district officer (dzongda) who must be elected. Larger dzongkhags are further divided into subdistricts called dungkhags. A group of villages are grouped to form a constituency called gewog, administered by a locally elected leader entitled a gup. There are 201 elected gups. In 2002, the National Assembly created a new structure for local governance at the geog level. Each local area is responsible for creating and implementing its own development plan, in coordination with the district. The 20 districts (dzongkhag, singular and plural) are: Bumthang, Chhukha, Chirang, Daga, Gasa, Geylegphug, Ha, Lhuntshi, Mongar, Paro, Pemagatsel, Punakha, Samchi, Samdrup Jongkhar, Shemgang, Tashigang, Tashi Yangtse, Thimphu, Tongsa, Wangdi Phodrang

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Independence Date: 1907 (became a unified kingdom under its first hereditary king)

Legal System: civil law based on Buddhist religious law. Bhutan has not submitted an International Criminal Court (ICJ) jurisdiction declaration and is a non-party state to the International Criminal Court (ICCt).

International Environmental Agreements

Bhutan is party to international agreements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, and Ozone Layer Protection. It has signed, but not ratified the Law of the Sea.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 95 cu km (1987)

Freshwater Withdrawal: 0.43 cu km/yr (5% domestic, 1% industrial, 94% agricultural)

Per capita freshwater withdrawal:: 199 cu m/yr (2000)

Access to improved drinking water sources: total: 92% of population

Access to improved sanitation facilities: 65% of population

See: Water profile of Bhutan



This image, taken by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on November 20, 2001, is one of a series of images used to study the glaciers of the Bhutan Himalayas. By tracking the movement of surface features like crevasses and debris patterns, Andreas Kaab of the University of Zurich measures the speed at which glaciers flow down the mountain. He found that glaciers on the north side of the range move as much as ten times faster than glaciers on the south side.

Glaciers move under their own weight. As more and more snow piles on the glacier, the ice compresses, deforms, and eventually begins to slide. One of the reasons the glaciers on the south side of the Bhutan Himalaya are moving so slowly—10-20 meters per year compared to 100-200 meters per year on the north— may be that their supply of ice is dwindling. Without new weight pressing on the glaciers, they are stagnating.

One reason the southern glaciers may be losing weight is the rock and gravel that rests on top of them. As this image clearly shows, the northern glaciers form in plateaus as high as 7,000 meters in elevation. The glaciers slide from the plateaus down the steep mountain side in long glacier tongues, which are white, tinted blue-gray where the snow is very compressed. The mountains are no less steep on the south side, but the glaciers have no plateaus on which to form. Instead, the glaciers cling to steep rock walls, which shower the glaciers with debris. The glaciers on the south are tinted gray-brown in this image because of the debris. Because the dark-colored debris absorbs energy from the Sun, the surface of the glacier is more susceptible to melting than it would be if its surface remained a reflective white. Indeed, the close view of a southern glacier, shown in the lower left image, shows pale blue ponds of liquid water, “supraglacial ponds” on the glacier’s surface. The northern glacier, lower right, is free of both debris and ponds.

The difference between the glaciers on each side of the mountain could become more pronounced as global warming sets in. Eighty to ninety percent of new snow falls on the southern glaciers between March and October during the summer monsoon. As temperatures warm, not only will more snow melt, but precipitation will tend to fall as rain instead of snow. Without fresh snow to maintain their mass and movement, the glaciers will shrink in place, a process called “down wasting.” By contrast, the northern glaciers are fed mostly by winter snow. Because temperatures are already cooler in the winter, the northern glaciers are more likely to get fresh snow every year, making them less sensitive to climate change. As temperatures warm, the fast-moving northern glaciers are most likely to adjust by retreating—shortening the length of the tongues that extend down into the valleys.

Understanding how glaciers may evolve is important because mountain glaciers are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to tracking global warming. Along with polar ice, they are the things most sensitive to warming temperatures. On top of being harbingers for climate change, melting glaciers can cause catastrophic floods, making it essential to monitor them regularly. Since most glaciers are remote and hard to get to, remote sensing is crucial to ongoing monitoring.

Source: NASA. NASA image courtesy the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

As glaciers grind their way across the landscape, they pile up rocky debris, forming moraines. At the terminus of a glacier, moraines can act as natural dams for lakes filled with melt water. When they fail, they can create catastrophic glacial outburst floods. On October 7, 1994, in the Bhutan Himalaya, a partial collapse of a moraine along the edge of the Luggye Lake released a glacial outburst flood that killed 21 people and swept away livestock, crops, and homes.

This natural-color image of the southern slopes of Bhutan’s Table Mountain shows where the 1994 glacial outburst flood occurred. Luggye Lake broke through the moraine at the southwest corner, and the flood scoured a path down the Pho Cho River. Unfortunately for residents down the valley, Luggye is not the only dangerous glacier in the region. Officials are also concerned about the Thorthormi Glacier Lake and the unstable moraine separating it from Raphstreng Lake, to the west.

Raphstreng Lake is roughly 80 meters (260 feet) lower in elevation than the lake forming at the terminus of Thorthormi Glacier, and an outburst flood from Thorthormi into Raphstreng could easily cause the lower lake to overflow as well. The combined outpouring of meltwater and rock debris could be even more devastating than the 1994 disaster.

To reduce the likelihood of a glacial outburst flood, Bhutan has begun a project to lower the water levels of both glacial lakes. In an area where heavy equipment could tumble down the slopes, the government of Bhutan has relied on human muscle and low-tech tools to widen the outlet channels and allow the lake water to drain in a more controlled way.

Source: NASA. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon. Caption by Michot Scott.


Agricultural products: rice, corn, root crops, citrus, foodgrains; dairy products, eggs

Irrigated Land: 400 sq km (2008)


Natural Resources: timber, hydropower, gypsum, calcium carbonate

Land Use:

arable land: 2.3%
permanent crops: 0.43%
other: 97.27% (2005)


The economy, one of the world's smallest and least developed, is based on agriculture and forestry, which provide the main livelihood for more than 60% of the population. Agriculture consists largely of subsistence farming and animal husbandry.

Rugged terrain makes it difficult to develop roads and other infrastructure. Despite this constraint, hydroelectricity and construction continue to be the two major industries of growth for the country. As these two economic sectors contribute to increased productivity, Bhutan's development prospects are positive. The Tala hydroelectric project, completed March 2007, has bolstered government revenue and exports, and will continue to do so for the next several years. In late 2009, Bhutan signed four memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with India to prepare four additional hydroelectric projects in Bhutan.

The Bhutanese Government expects the tourism sector to expand as well; however, restrictions on visitor numbers and minimum per-day spending requirements will impede rapid growth.

Bhutan's tenth five-year plan (2008-2013) focuses on ways to manage the country's new-found wealth with special emphasis on three development areas: rural, regional, and private-sector. India has pledged to support the plan and promised to double the amount of aid given to Bhutan in the previous five-year plan. The parliament had not yet finalized the tenth five-year plan as of October 2008; it intended to do so during the next session later in 2008.

Bhutan's economy has been on an upturn due to recent subregional economic cooperation efforts. Already this plan has strengthened the current trade relations with India, as well as opened an avenue of trade with Bangladesh. In May 2003, the Bilateral Free Trade Agreement between Bangladesh and Bhutan was re-signed. Bangladesh is Bhutan's second largest trade partner, after India. In January 2004, as a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bhutan also joined the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA); Bhutan will host the SAARC summit in Thimphu in April 2010. In February 2004 Bhutan joined the Bangladesh, Indian, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand Economic Cooperation Forum (BIMSTEC). Bhutan has applied for membership in the World Trade Organization and is in the process of developing clear legal and regulatory systems designed to promote business development

The economy is closely aligned with India's through strong trade and monetary links and dependence on India's financial assistance.

The industrial sector is technologically backward, with most production of the cottage industry type. Most development projects, such as road construction, rely on Indian migrant labor.

Model education, social, and environment programs are underway with support from multilateral development organizations. Each economic program takes into account the government's desire to protect the country's environment and cultural traditions. For example, the government, in its cautious expansion of the tourist sector, encourages visits by upscale, environmentally conscientious tourists.

Complicated controls and uncertain policies in areas such as industrial licensing, trade, labor, and finance continue to hamper foreign investment.

Hydropower exports to India have boosted Bhutan's overall growth. New hydropower projects will be the driving force behind Bhutan's ability to create employment and sustain growth in the coming years.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $4.284 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $1.83 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $6,000 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 16.7%
industry: 45.4%
services: 37.9% (2011 est.)

Industries: cement, wood products, processed fruits, alcoholic beverages, calcium carbide, tourism

Currency: ngultrum (BTN)



Administration, N., Agency, C., Fund, W., & Department, U. (2014). Bhutan. Retrieved from


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