Bhutan, Land and Resources
Bhutan has an area of 47,000 sq km (18,100 sq mi). Despite its small size, it is a land of great diversity, with dense, swampy jungles, valleys of rice fields, bleak alpine highlands, and towering Himalayan snow peaks in close proximity to one another.
Bhutan has three major land regions: the Great Himalayan region, in the north; the Middle Himalayan region, in central Bhutan; and the Duars, a plain along the southern border with India. The Great Himalayan region rises more than 4,300 m (14,000 ft) along the Tibetan border and contains Kula Kangri (7,554 m/24,783 ft), Bhutan’s highest peak. Northern Bhutan is uninhabited except for a few scattered settlements in the high valleys, where hardy Bhutanese yaks graze in the high mountain pastures in the summer months.
The Great Himalayas radiate southward into central Bhutan, creating the Middle Himalayan zone. The Middle Himalayas enclose fertile valleys lying at elevations between about 1,500 and 2,800 m (about 4,900 and 9,200 ft). These are relatively broad and flat valleys, with moderate rainfall and a temperate climate; they are well populated and cultivated.
South of the Middle Himalayan valleys and foothills lies the Duars, which is a plain 8 to 13 km (5 to 8 mi) wide. Here rivers flowing to the south have cut deep gorges into the mountains that rise sharply from the narrow plain. The rainfall is heavy and the hillsides are covered with thick vegetation. The climate of the Duars tract is unhealthy; the valleys are hot and humid and the forested foothills are wet and misty. The southern section of the Duars, once covered with dense savanna and bamboo jungle, has been largely cleared for rice cultivation. The northern part of the Duars, including the foothills, is rugged, irregular land that is covered with dense vegetation; deer, tigers, and other wild animals roam this area.
Bhutan’s main rivers, from west to east, are the Torsa, Raidak, Sankosh, and Manas. Rising in the Great Himalayas, these rivers flow south through Bhutan to India. Flooding is rare in the upper courses but can be a serious problem in the low-lying areas of the Duars. None of the rivers is navigable.
In Bhutan, differences in altitude, exposure to sunlight, and rain-bearing winds result in intricate variations in climate. The northern interior has bitterly cold winters and cool, temperate summers; the southern foothills and the Duars, less than 160 km (100 mi) away, have a humid, tropical climate all year. In the capital, Thimphu, in west central Bhutan, average temperatures range from about -4°C (25°F) to about 16°C (61°F) in January and from about 15°C (59°F) to about 26°C (79°F) in July, during the monsoon season. The average annual precipitation is about 650 mm (about 25 in), with most of it falling between June and September.
Mineral resources in Bhutan include limestone, dolomite, and coal. Limestone and dolomite are mined in southwestern Bhutan; coal is extracted in the southeast. Some 64 percent of Bhutan’s land area is forested. Most of the forests are located in the Middle Himalayan ranges and foothills of central and eastern Bhutan. Vegetation varies with altitude, slope, moisture, and drainage. Deciduous woodlands are found in the south, mixed forests in central Bhutan, and coniferous forests in the north.
Population growth is increasing the demand for fuelwood and causing pressure on the small amount of land that can be used for farming or pasture. The more accessible forests have been depleted through overcutting, poor management, and soil erosion. Poor access to potable water and sanitation are also serious problems in Bhutan. Nevertheless, preservation of the environment is part of the country’s tradition and government policy, and 21.2 percent (1997) of the land is protected.