Deep in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan is the world’s sole surviving Buddhist Kingdom. The land-locked country is the true counterpart to the mythic city of Shangri-La, an environmental and cultural paradise where colorful prayer flags flutter atop ancient monasteries, and age-old traditions have been passed down through the generations.
The Phobjikha Valley of Bhutan is a critical habitat for the Black-Necked Crane. The 500 families that inhabit Phobjikha Valley have longed for the improved quality of life that electricity can provide, but are they are also faithful protectors of the natural wonderland the cranes call home.
Extending the national electrical grid to the Valley would create environmental hazards for the cranes. Also detrimental to the cranes’ habitat, families must cut trees and brush for fuel. Burning wood chips, kerosene lamps, and candles are a hazard to human health as well, affecting the eyesight and lungs of the local people.
In 2003, SELF developed a solar electric project to advance the twin goals of improved living conditions and environmental conservation. Working with local partners, Tshungmed Solar and SELCO-India, the project brought clean, reliable solar energy to 151 Phobjikha homes, the community health clinic, and the education center of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), a non-governmental conservation group which will provide ongoing support for the project.
SELF provided the seed capital and financing mechanism for families to secure small loans for purchase of their solar home system. With the microloans, the monthly payments for the solar home systems are nearly identical to what families previously paid for kerosene, candles, and batteries. With its local partners, SELF trained local men and women in solar technology, installation, and maintenance, thus ensuring that after SELF’s departure, the high-technology project can be maintained over time. Local teens, including two young women, were taught how to care for the batteries and clean and maintain the solar panels.
In addition to solar home systems, a 750-watt solar system was installed at the education and information center of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature to run lights and computers at the center. Phobjikha’s small health clinic also received a new seven-light solar system, allowing the clinic to operate day and night.
Electricity in the Phobjikha Valley is a small but vital component of a larger strategy of conservation and development in Bhutan, and this project serves as a model for electrification of other villages, both in Bhutan and elsewhere in the Himalayas.
Clean, bright light opens the door of opportunity. The entire community benefits from the newly electrified health clinic where healthcare can now be given on overcast days, and emergencies such as night-time births can be addressed under the vivid glow of an electric light bulb instead of the dim flicker and choking fumes of a kerosene lamp. The women of Phobjikha Valley can now stitch embroidery, weave, or produce other income-generating goods after dark, and can enjoy brightly-lit family time. Children can study in the evening hours. RSPN can monitor the Black-Necked Cranes with computers, rather than pen and paper, and lights at the center provide the community with a gathering place to socialize in the evenings and learn computer literacy skills.
The project was made possible by the generous support of the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, the International Foundation, the Summit Foundation, Geographic Expeditions, Dar Williams, Colin and Anne Phipps, Elaine Seiler and numerous other individual donors, many of them past visitors to Bhutan.