Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘green and happy’ Bhutan

This photo taken on April 19, 2019 shows traffic backed up on a road in Bhutan's capital Thimphu. (AFP / Upasana Dahal)
Updated 24 July 2019
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Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘green and happy’ Bhutan

  • Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades
  • Congestion and lack of parking now makes driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic light

THUMPHU: Famed for valuing Gross National Happiness over economic growth, Bhutan is a poster child for sustainable development.
But booming car sales may 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, according to transport authority director general Pemba Wangchuk with capital Thimphu hardest hit by the influx of vehicles.
Phuntsho Wangdi, a media consultant, says the congestion and lack of parking now makes 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 adds of life in Thimpu, which is home to half the cars in the country.
The nation’s 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.
But the nation’s narrow country lanes and outdated city roads can barely cope.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,” Lhendup, a taxi driver, tells AFP.
Morning rush hour journeys that once took five minutes now take more than half an hour.
This may seem a small figure compared to 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,” says 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 the World Bank’s 2018 report, the youth unemployment rate is high, as is rural to urban migration, which puts a strain on the resources of towns and cities. And despite it’s reputation as a place where well-being is prioritized — it ranked 95th out of 156 countries in the 2019 UN World Happiness Report.
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 ($46 million) in car loans in 2015, but by last year the amount had reached 6.7 billion ngultrum ($96 million).
The figures please local businessmen but worry environmentalists keen to ensure Bhutan remains one of the world’s greenest countries.
Environmental activist Yeshey Dorji explains: “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.”
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.
But Bhutan is now importing more in fossil fuels than it exports in hydropower to India — the country’s biggest revenue earner.
Public transport is poor, particularly in Thimpu, which is home to 100,000 people but barely 40 buses.
The capital’s mayor Kinlay Dorji plans to introduce bus-only lanes on city roads and wants to buy more buses.
“Its time for radical measures,” he says.
“We have to make public transport more attractive and discourage owning cars,” he adds, warning 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.
Commission secretary Dasho Sonam P. Wangdi explains: “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.”


Desperate migrants jump off rescue ship, seeking Italy

Updated 20 August 2019
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Desperate migrants jump off rescue ship, seeking Italy

  • The migrantsl were seeking the shores of Lampedusa, a short distance away from the anchored ship
  • Live video showed people wearing life vests floating in the sea

MILAN: At least 15 more migrants jumped into the sea Tuesday from the Open Arms rescue ship in desperate bids to reach the shores of Italy after 19 days on the boat in deteriorating conditions as Italy refuses to open its ports.
With the situation on board described by Open Arms as “out of control” and “desperate” over Italy’s repeated refusal to allow the migrants into the southern island of Lampedusa, Spain said it was dispatching a naval ship to escort the aid group’s boat and its passengers to a port in the Spanish island of Mallorca.
“After analyzing all the options, this is the most adequate and the one that would allow resolving within this week the humanitarian emergency on board the Open Arms,” the statement said.
But the journey of the Audaz warship from its base in southern Spain to Lampedusa is expected to last three days, adding to the ordeal of the migrants.
Dozens of them have been evacuated in recent days because they were underage or ill, but 83 remain on board.
That was after one migrant jumped off the ship early on Tuesday and was rescued by the Italian coast guard, followed by two groups of nine and five more who launched themselves into the sea wearing orange life vests.
All were seeking the shores of Lampedusa, a short distance away from the anchored ship.
A reporter with the Spanish public broadcaster TVE said the first jumper refused to return to the Open Arms and was brought to Lampedusa instead, prompting others to follow his lead. The reporter said those jumping were “desperate and going mad” after 19 days trapped on board.
Live video showed people wearing life vests floating in the sea, some in groups and some individually, with a coast guard vessel nearby and rubber dinghies trying to reach them.
Open Arms said the Italian coast guard rescued all 15 jumpers and brought them to Lampedusa.
A spokeswoman for the charity, Laura Lanuza, said she heard from Open Arms crew members that “those who remain aboard are threatening to jump as well.” The Open Arms captain previously informed Italian authorities that the crew of 17 can no longer control the situation on board, as frustrated migrants resort to fighting.
Italy’s hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has refused port access to the ship, even though six other European countries have agreed to take in the migrants, who were rescued at sea in early August off the coast of Libya.
Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, said on social media that he has been in touch with Spanish officials to demand that “they do everything to stop the NGO.” He did not specify what he expects Spain to do, and Spain said it was awaiting clarification.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte announced last week that six nations — Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Romania and Luxembourg — had offered to take the migrants aboard Open Arms.
But in his post, Toninelli complained those countries were waiting until the migrants were on land “and then they will see.”
Impasses involving Italy’s refusal to allow migrant ships to dock started immediately after the populist coalition of the League and the 5-Star Movement took office last June. In the first, a ship made the long trip to Spain with 630 migrants after Madrid opened its ports.
But Spain has changed its approach since then, saying that international marine laws and EU regulations require that rescued people need to be taken to the closest and safest port. It also says that EU members need to find a long-lasting solution for dealing with migration that doesn’t rely so much on just the Mediterranean countries.
Open Arms sailed within a few hundred meters of Lampedusa last week after Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s ban on private rescue boats entering Italy’s waters was overturned by a court. Salvini has appealed that ruling and warned that his ban on docking still holds.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups and has 356 rescued migrants aboard, has been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa as it waits for a port of safety to be assigned.
Italy’s standoff with Open Arms has further raised tensions in the country’s failing ruling coalition, as Cabinet members from the 5-Star Movement, including the defense and transport ministers, increasingly question the handling of the rescue ship by Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party.
Toninelli said other European countries were turning their backs on Italy “and there is one person responsible: Matteo Salvini, who has weakened the government and as a consequence our position in Europe.”