Land Use Planning in Bhutan

12th Esri European Users Conference 1997

Copenhagen, DENMARK

September 29th to October 1st, 1997


GIS Application for Land Use Planning in Bhutan

by: Mr. Dungkar Drukpa and Mr. Sonam Penjor



In the small, Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, land use planning and resource management are now being done with the help of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). This has gained impetus after an agreement between the government and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) was signed to embark on a land use planning project. From first knowing about the existence of such tools as GIS, when the project began, to learning GIS with eagerness, the Land Use Planning Section (LUPS) in the Ministry of Agriculture today is equipped with satisfactorily operational trained manpower to deal with most of the GIS related works. Much important information related to land use planning is now in digital format, all of which has been digitized initially, then updated and now usable for query and analysis. A number of analysis, based on requests from outside have been carried out. Training of staff from other organizations is also conducted whenever required. Having come thus far, it is now felt important that emphasis should be more on data compatibility among GIS users in Bhutan and exploring and understanding the needs of the end users. Updating the present database will continue to be an important future activity using data from remote sensing.


Paper Body:

Bhutan is a developing country in the Himalayas to the east of Nepal between India and China. The country has a very rugged terrain coupled with alpine to subtropical climate, limiting among others, the land available for agricultural development. In order to initiate and compliment on the process of sustainable agricultural development, the government in agreement with DANIDA embarked on the Land Use Planning Project in the Ministry of Agriculture. A major component of this project was the collection and compilation of land use data and to train the local staff in the use of data for land use planning. GIS became the obvious choice for data storage and analysis although it was initially taken with some reservation.

When the project began, there were no data available in digital form. People had to be trained in the use of GIS. All input data such as contour lines, drainage system, settlements, roads, and land use (after field verification) were digitized manually. All these layers were sent through a process of rigorous quality check beginning from the operator to the district planners. They were then combined to produce the land use working maps at a scale of 1:50,000 which were taken for presentation to the districts. Based on the correction received and their suggestions, they were later combined to produce the land cover maps for the districts and then finally for the whole country.

The need for and use of GIS became quite clear when the project embarked on local planning exercise selecting four sub-districts. A variety of maps showing land use and land cover, geology, slope, aspect, infrastructure, and land capability, involving the local people were prepared and presented to both planners and local people. Specific maps based on the requirement of a particular planning site such as migration routes, network of hydro electric power plant, were also produced. Samples of this are included in the Appendix. Important findings of such studies were finally incorporated into the national development plans.

At the national level GIS was used to explore potential agricultural development areas on the basis of slope, land use and elevation. A potential user of this analysis result were the soil surveyors for identifying their areas of interest. Also, given the rugged terrain with steep slopes in the country, a lot of areas, even those where risks from soil erosion is great, are cultivated. Hence, to have a better understanding of this situation with the help of GIS, a study was done to look for areas presently used for any form of permanent cultivation that is above 50 per cent slope. Samples of such maps are included in the Appendix.

On request from the Ministry of Communication, a two weeks training on GIS using PC ARC/INFO was conducted. About twelve participants from various divisions of the ministry attended the training. Feedback received from the participants indicated a satisfactory achievement of the training. On the training aspect, a GIS manual, titled `Understanding GIS through PC ARC/INFO' was also prepared mainly to help those people who have interest, computers and data but did not receive any training in GIS.

Present activities mainly include updating land use maps. This is done on the basis of feedback received from districts, agencies and individuals and also in coordination with relevant divisions. Various types of maps on farming systems showing crop and livestock distribution were also produced. Further, maps showing the Renewable Natural Resources (RNR) facilities are prepared for all the twenty districts. On the analysis part, PC ARC/INFO and IDRISI combined with Pascal Programming is being used to divide the country into different agro-climatological zones. Outputs from this exercise include maps showing rainfall, temperature, and radiation distribution, based on which potential evapotranspiration and the length of growing periods will be estimated. Such information were not used much before, mainly due to lack of data but they are definitely going to be an important criteria for planning agricultural development in the future.

Together with carrying out the activities required by the Ministry of Agriculture, a lot of day-to-day requirements from outside are also fulfilled. This ranges from preparing index map for an individual's thesis to analysing potential horticultural development areas.

In the future too, updating the present database will continue to form an important activity. The unit will also continue to fulfill the requirements of the ministry as well as those from outside. New activities in connection to this activity will include accommodating digital remote sensing data in addition to the presently used satellite photos. This is already foreseen in the overall plan of the ministry realizing the importance of such information for the said purpose.

Over the next five years, GIS will be established in the four RNR Research Centres (RNRRCs). The unit will train the people and also visit the respective RNRRCs for the GIS set-up.

The most important future activity will be to embark on coordination among the various sections and ministries that are using GIS to establish a compatible database, and where possible a compatible GIS software. The role of LUPS as a training institution will be important in this matter. Related to this, there is also a need to study the requirements of our end users, to know how we might be of help to them. On their part, they need to concretize their information needs. Only then will it be easy for us to know what additional layers of information are required and what type of analysis we should do.



The main softwares used are PC ARC/INFO, SEM, and IDRISI. PC ARC/INFO was the major software and was used for digitizing, database maintenance, vector overlay and plotting. SEM and IDRISI were used mainly for terrain modelling and for processing raster data. The project also has a license for ArcView towards which it is being planned to shift gradually. SURFER (of Golden Software, Inc.) has also been obtained and will be mainly used for terrain modelling.



The past was a story of success and of achievement, because we had the right people - both experts and local - at the right place in the right time. The experts trained the local staff in the use and utility of GIS technology and the local staff absorbed them in the same frequency. Everything went as planned and as expected. Nobody was unhappy. On the whole it brought us to a fairly comfortable present. The experts left but the works are still being done. Requirements are being fulfilled, fairly enough to satisfy the needs of the ministry and outside agencies. The future looks challenging. It is still an uphill task and there are a lot of things to be done in store for us. We look forward to it with boldness and enthusiasm.



The authors are grateful to the Royal Government of Bhutan for granting approval to attend this very important conference. We also take this opportunity to thank DANIDA for its overall support to the Land Use Planning Project and also for funding our trip to this conference. Our sincere gratitude also goes to Esri for providing us the orginal five PC ARC/INFO software licenses free of charge. The valuable knowledge and assistance we received from all the experts who came to work in the LUPS as well as the guidance and inspiration we received in preparing this paper are acknowledged with profound gratitude.




1. First output from GIS..e.g. a contour map plotted with pencil (then)

1. Land Use Working Map (1 sample)

2. Land Capability Map (1 sample)

3. Potential Agricultural Development area

4. Agricultural land above 50 % slope



References Sustainable Land Use Guidelines for Bhutan (SLUB).




Author information

Mr. Dungkar Drukpa and Mr. Sonam Penjor
Land Use Planning Section
Policy and Planning Division
Ministry of Agriculture
Thimphu Bhutan
Tel: (+975) 2 23745
Fax: (+975) 2 23748