Understanding the Policy Contexts for Mainstreaming Climate Change in Bhutan and Nepal: A Synthesis

Submitted by Pin Pravalprukskul | published 12th Jun 2013 | last updated 1st Apr 2021
Brief image of himalayas


This report is a synthesis of two studies that sought to understand the policy contexts for addressing climate change adaptation and key conservation issues in Nepal and Bhutan, which have many significant commonalities and differences. The purpose of this synthesis is to compare the policy contexts for mainstreaming climate change adaptation in Bhutan and Nepal, and to draw lessons that might help improve policies in the two countries and beyond. 

These two Himalayan countries have significant commonalities and differences. Nepal and Bhutan are both mountainous, landlocked Himalayan countries sandwiched between China and India and covering a similar landmass. Set on the Himalayan slopes, both countries are seeing tangible signs of climate change already; most notably, shrinking glaciers. The two countries have predominantly rural populations whose heavy reliance on agriculture and forests makes them particularly vulnerable to climate change. Both have undergone dramatic political changes in recent years. However, while the transition was peaceful in Bhutan, Nepal spent a decade in turmoil. Furthermore, Bhutan, with an area around 47,000 km2 is roughly a third of the size of Nepal, but has less than one-fortieth of the population, and almost three times the forest cover. Bhutan is also developing and overcoming poverty much faster; so, while Nepal’s per capita annual gross national income was $540 in 2011, Bhutan’s gross national income for the same year was $2070.3 The purpose of this synthesis is to compare the policy contexts for mainstreaming climate change adaptation in Bhutan and Nepal, and to draw lessons that might help improve policies in the two countries and beyond.

Policy context defined by relations amongst policy actors

IFAD (2009) focuses on the most obvious linkages, examining the legal framework, resources, incentives and feedbacks in the realm of rural poverty reduction and food production and security. It also pays special attention to the gaps between a policy’s objectives and its implementation. In summary, IFAD’s framework assesses

  • Policy needs and policy objectives set up to meet needs;
  • Policy actors or stakeholders involved in policy agenda-setting and/or affected by the agenda, whether formal or informal;
  • Institutional arrangements for implementation, whether formal or informal; and
  • Feedback systems for future improvement.

Enabling Factors

In the context of adaptation, five key types of enabling conditions are needed:

  • Finance for government and other policy actors to implement the policies in discussion
  • Governance – laws and norms that encourage adaptation and long-term and efficient management of natural resources, as well as improved administrative and technical capacity in government and other policy actors
  • Markets that reflect the true costs of goods and the value derived from natural resources, e.g. water and forests • Infrastructure for sustainable management or conservation of natural resources and for adaptation
  • Information, including knowledge of the issues addressed by the policies, e.g. forests, water resources and adaptation, and the skills needed to manage them

Key insights from the policy review

Policy objectives 

Forests are crucial to the livelihoods of rural people in both countries, and community forestry has played an important role in protecting those livelihoods while also engaging forest users directly in the protection of the forests. This is particularly relevant for adaptation because those are very poor and vulnerable populations. In Bhutan, for example, while only 1.7% of Bhutan’s urban residents lived in poverty as of 2007, and 0.2% in extreme poverty, in rural areas, the rates were 30.9% and 8%, respectively (National Statistics Bureau 2007).

Nepal’s Master Plan for the Forestry Sector (MPFS), which laid the foundation for community forestry, had four stated objectives:

  • Meet the people’s basic needs for forest products on a sustained basis;
  • Conserve ecosystems and genetic resources;
  • Protect the land from degradation and other effects of ecological imbalance; and
  • Contribute to local and national economic growth. Bhutan’s Forest Act, meanwhile, laid out the following objectives:
  • Guide and safeguard Bhutan’s natural resources from over-exploitation; • Ensure the conservation of Bhutan’s renewable natural resources; and
  • Maintain 60% total forest cover. 

Proposed action

Bhutan’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) was not examined in depth in the policy analysis, but like Nepal’s water policies, it has yet to yield significant results. The NAPA text notes that Bhutan needs “sound coping mechanisms” to deal with the adverse impacts of climate change, and it says its findings are “aimed at addressing the immediate threats of climate change by putting in place long-term preventive measures” (Kingdom of Bhutan 2006). However, the policy analysis found that few activities have been proposed or undertaken since then, mainly due to a limited understanding of climate impacts.

Nepal’s NAPA, submitted in 2010, is detailed and comprehensive, with identified adaptation priorities in agriculture and food security, the water sector, the energy sector, disaster risk management, forests and biodiversity, public health, and urban settlements and infrastructure. Proposed actions are then grouped into nine clusters:

  1. Promoting community-based adaptation through integrated management of agriculture, water, forests and biodiversity;
  2. Building and enhancing the adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities through improved systems and access to services related to agricultural development;
  3. Community-based disaster risk management to facilitate climate adaptation;
  4. Glacial lake outburst flood monitoring and disaster risk reduction;
  5. Forest and ecosystem management to support adaptation innovations;
  6. Adapting to climate change in public health;
  7. Ecosystem management for climate adaptation;
  8. Empowering vulnerable communities through sustainable management of water resources and a clean energy supply; and
  9. Promoting climate-smart urban settlements.

The implementation of Nepal’s NAPA activities relies on local governments, the private sector, NGOs and community-based organizations to submit proposals for government review. The setup is meant to ensure that at least 80% of the funds for climate activities flow to the grassroots level; CFUGs and irrigation groups are among the local-level implementing entities envisioned by the plan.

Policy recommendations

The reports offer multiple suggestions for ways both to improve sector-specific policies and to support a more integrated and effective approach to adaptation. To a great extent, those recommendations have already been noted above, in the context of the relevant policies. Thus, this concluding section offers only a synthesis of the key priorities identified:

  • Systematically review laws, policies and practices affecting development, natural resources, conservation and other environmental issues, and ensure that they are consistent, and not mutually contradictory.
  • Foster institutional linkages, cooperation and coordination among agencies involved in these issues, to ensure they work in tandem rather than at cross-purposes. This will be particularly important for effective adaptation.
  • Invest in research and infrastructure to ensure that planners, decision-makers and implementing agencies have the knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Invest in capacity building at all levels of government, especially with regard to climate change and adaptation.
  • Further empower communities to participate in planning, conservation and natural resource development and management, and ensure that their feedback on policies can reach decision-makers and influence future policy-making.


Suggested citation

Davis, M. and L. Li 2013. Understanding the Policy Contexts for Mainstreaming Climate Change in Bhutan and Nepal: A Synthesis. Regional Climate Change Adaptation Knowledge Platform for Asia, Partner Report Series No. 10. Stockholm Environment Institute, Bangkok