'White Gold': Discovering Bhutan’s natural energy treasure

The carbon-negative nation is battling climate change along its abundant rivers.

Since the time I first visited Asia about 30 years ago, my dream had been to witness the stunning beauty and culture of the country of Bhutan, known as “the kingdom of the thunder dragon."

To date, I have visited about 120 countries in my life and Bhutan is honestly the most beautiful one I have ever seen. Majestic Buddhist temples are surrounded by rolling green hills and flowing rivers. There are no traffic lights anywhere in the entire country and very few cars, even in its capital of Thimphu.

Bhutan is often called "the happiest place on earth," after its king said in the early 1970s that the country would only develop at a pace that would make people happy.

For most of the 20th century, it was one of the most isolated countries on earth. The Kingdom of Bhutan had no paved roads until 1961, the year I was born. Television did not arrive until 1999.

Tourists cannot wander the towns and mountains alone, they must discover the country with a guide. In some ways, that reminded me of my trips to North Korea when "minders" of the DPRK controlled our every move.

But the guides in Bhutan aren’t guarding government secrets –- they want to protect the country’s traditional way of life and pristine natural landscapes from tourism and pollution.

The king and queen are still loved and respected here. Citizens are required to wear the culture’s traditional clothes every day and the architecture style is strictly controlled.

Bhutan has been isolated for so long for a few reasons, including religion, its steep geographic elevations and its role as a small, but mighty buffer between the powerful countries surrounding it –- China and India. It’s a small country with about 815,000 people, sandwiched between the two nations, which have a combined population of about 2.7 billion citizens.

Though the historical culture of Bhutan is fascinating, our main mission on this trip was to discover something else –- the resource so valuable and important to the country’s survival in the modern world that it’s referred to as “white gold.”

Perched in what is called the “third pole,” the Tibetan plateau, Bhutan receives billions of gallons of water from the melting snow of the Himalayan mountains, more than 26,000 feet above the oceans. The abundant rivers supply water to about one quarter of the world’s population, living in those neighboring countries.

Likely because of global warming, the ice is melting faster than ever, bringing even more water to Bhutan. The melting ice has caused more floods in Bhutan than ever in its history and the rivers are widening as the waters are rising.

Bhutan is the world’s only “carbon negative” country because it absorbs more carbon than it emits. Thanks to its lack of environmental protections, it still suffers from climate change tied to the massive carbon-dioxide emissions from other countries of the world.

We got the chance to meet Bhutan’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, who has said that "72 percent of the country is under forest cover and more than half of Bhutan is protected as national parks, wild-life sanctuaries and nature reserves."

Under the cloudless blue sky, we rafted down the rivers where we witnessed how Bhutan is able to survive and grow while maintaining its position as the world’s only "carbon negative" country.

But, to pay for this carbon absorption without expanding its own carbon dioxide emissions, Bhutan is increasing the development of hydropower plants on its most powerful rivers.

That development has not been widely accepted. People in the countryside are witnessing these changes, which have sparked many emotional responses. But they are also quickly learning more about the outside world, where some people have better homes, cars and education.

My biggest hope is that Bhutan can remain as clean, beautiful and spiritual as it has been for so many centuries. The tourists will keep coming and the demands from the citizens will continue to grow, too.

In this world of constant expansion, Bhutan so far has been cautious. The dream is that the thunder dragon of Bhutan will continue to live, as it has been. But to do that, it must retain its strength and power as the nation gradually soars into the future.