GIS implementation in a Developing Country,

- the case of Bhutan.

By Hans Skov-Petersen (HSP@FSL.DK)
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Danish Forest and Landscape Research Institute (WWW.FSL.DK)
Ministry of Energy and Environment (WWW.MEM.DK)
Hørsholm Kongevej 11, DK-2970 Hørsholm, Denmark
Telephone: +45 45 76 32 00, Fax: +45 45 76 32 33

Last update: 15/8 1997

The author was posted as GIS mapping specialist at LUPP from October, 1992 to November, 1994. Further, he has been working on the project at a number of occasions and is still attached as consultant. The views expressed in this paper are the authors, rather than a reflection of DANIDA's, The Land Use Planning Projects or the Royal Government of Bhutan's official opinions.


  1. Abstract.
  2. Introduction.
  3. Danish GIS activities in developing countries.
  4. The kingdom of Bhutan.
  5. The setting of Land Use Planning Project (LUPP).
  6. Map production and procedures.
  7. Implementation considerations and strategies.
  8. Selected References.
  9. More nice pictures from Bhutan.


A PC ARC/INFO based system was established within the Land Use Planning Section of the Ministry of Agriculture, Royal Government of Bhutan. The primary task was to produce a national coverage of maps in scales of 1:50,000, 1:100,000 and 1:250,000, based on data collected from satellite image hard copies, existing topographic maps and field work. Later, the system has been used for production of a vast range analytical and mapping tasks; including local planning maps in 1:25,000 and terrain modelling. The GIS unit, initially established in 1992, is still in full operation.

The choice of a scaleable 'low end', PC-based GIS, is regarded as crucial for the success of the implementation of the system, both in terms of human resources, institutional development and technically.

Tashichho Dzong: The governmental head quarter and main monastery in the capital Thimphu. Rare winter snow.

Back to Content.


The Land Use Planning Project (LUPP) is funded by the Danish development assistance (DANIDA). The project was fielded in October, 1992, and will, in its present form, continue until July, 1997.

The ambitions, in terms of GIS, were in the beginning fairly modest. The need was a facility for efficient production of maps, by combination of information from a variety of data sources. Only later the expected wish for analytical capabilities came true.

The challenge of producing useful and accurate maps and a digital map database for the entire nation of Bhutan, considering the limited number of people and time available, was overwhelming. It would have been impossible if it wasn't for the facilities provided by modern GIS-technology.

The choice of a low-end system is considered crucial for the success of the project. The development of desktop GIS's is mainly targeted on the data presentation and, to a lesser extent, analytical capabilities. In most developing countries, where data collection still has a major role to play, the need of well developed and supported low-end tools like PC ARC/INFO and DAK.

Back to Content.

Danish GIS activities in developing countries.

The Danish government donates approximately 1 % of the GNP to Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). In 1995 the donation via the Danish Development Assistance (DANIDA) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was 9.07 billions DKK (approximately corresponding to 1.6 billion USD). The budget is equally split between bi- and multilateral activities. In addition the Danish Environment and Disaster Relief Facility (EDRF), administrated by the Ministry of Energy and Environment in 1995 donated 705 Million DKK (approximately corresponding to 1.3 million USD) to development projects. It is the intention that this fund should increase to 0.5% of the Danish GNP by the year of 2002 DANIDA, 1996).

The usage of GIS is playing an increasing role in development projects. A brief survey was carried out in the spring of 1997 to assess the GIS activities in Danish development projects. Major organisations, NGO's and private companies were asked to list projects having GIS-components by country and sector. The table below (Table 1) presents a summary of the results. The survey is not exhaustive, but covers a significant part of the activities.

East Europe
South East Asia
Sum of Sector
Agriculture and Animal Husbandry
Natural Conservation
Regional Planning and Development
Water Management and Planning

Table 1. Brief list of Danish development projects, having GIS activities. Number of projects by geographical region and sector.

Organisations involved includes: Carl Bro, Cowi Consult, Danish Hydraulic Institute, Denconsult, Kampsax, National Survey and Cadastre - Denmark, Nordeco and Ornis Consult. I will hereby take the opportunity to thank managers and employees for taking the time to facilitate the information.

The usage of GIS have obvious potential in development projects. GIS works best in vast areas, having a low level of information, - two measures that often are fulfilled in developing countries. Further, development projects often develop entire organisations and information infrastructur, including major primary data collection. This gives an enhanced background for successful GIS-implementation.

Denmark, being a geographically small country, with a very high level of information, can be seen as a place of lesser opportunities, in terms of GIS challenges. Danish GIS academics often go abroad in order to pick up these challenges.

Back to Content.

The kingdom of Bhutan.

General information about Bhutan. All numeric figures are approximate.

Area40,000 km2
Neighboring countries India and China.
Geographical situation. (Do you want to see a map?) 26°30' to 28°30' Latitude, North, and 88°45' to 92°15' Longitude, East
Altitude170 to 7600 Meters above sea level

The Danish assistance to Bhutan will in the years to come concentrate on health, environmental and natural resources management and urban development (DANIDA, 1997). The ODA to Bhutan was in 1995 54 million DKK (approximately corresponding to 9.5 million USD).

Religious ceremony in the central Bhutan.

Back to Content.

The setting of Land Use Planning Project (LUPP).

The Land Use Planning Project (LUPP) is funded by the Danish development assistance (DANIDA). The project was fielded in October, 1992, and will, in its present form, continue until July, 1997. For the remaining part of 1997 an interrim face have been established. From the beginning of 1998 a 5 year extension of the project will been initiated. The overall objective is to strengthen the Ministry of Agriculture, Royal Government of Bhutan in its capability of performing land use planning. The project is operated from an office, centrally placed in Thimphu, with tight links to the regional administrations. Since the most abundant type of land-use is agriculture and forestry, the project was placed in the Planning and Policy Division of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The project have four components: Land Resources, Farming Systems, mapping and administration. The first two years the project emphasized on collection and compilation of existing information relevant for the planning activities. Production of land use/land cover maps in scales of 1:50,000, 1:100,000 and 1:250,000 was a predefined output for the Land Resources and mapping activity. At that time the project was staffed with four expatiates and 13 Bhutanese.

Back to Content.

Map production and procedures.

It was decided to follow the original map sheet system and projection of the Indian sub-continent. 1:50,000 map-sheets was quarter-degree Lat/Long, in both directions, covering the country by 81 map sheets. The projection is Lambert Conformal Polyconic. For co-registration of coverages, a national TIC coverage, holding all sheet-corner-coordinates, was constructed. All 'base-map-coverages' are still stored as tiles matching the original 1:50,000 map-sheets.

The classification system for the land use/land cover was generated in close collaboration with the relevant Bhutanese agencies. The classes was interpreted from SPOT PAN hardcopies (1:50,000). For each polygon classified, the mode of verification was recorded, i.e. whether it had been verified in field by LUPP staff, it had been verified by other Government staff having local knowledge or the interpretation had been based entirely on the satellite images.

All topographic information, including 200 m contour-lines, rivers and streams, administrative boundaries and settlements were digitized from 1:50,000 topographic maps provided by Survey of Bhutan. Most of the topographic maps were based on information collected in the early sixties, and intensive inspection had to take place, especially regarding names.

All roads in Bhutan have been constructed after 1960.The present network was digitized from the satellite images, in cases supported by information captured by means of GPS.

All arc- and polygon-features were digitized in stream-mode. For each layer a set of standards regarding various tolerances, acceptance of dangles, non labeled polygons etc. were followed.

For each digitized layer a plot on transparent paper were overlayed with the original map or image to access obvious errors. When all layers for one map sheet were finished, a comprehensive assessment of the quality, according to the prescribed standards was made. Finally all maps were scrutinized by the district offices and other relevant officials. When all 1:50,000 map sheets had reached this stage, the production of the above 1:250,000 and 1:100,000 were initiated.

A national land cover map in 1:250,000 was produced from the 'core' map-data-base and a set of 1:100,000 land cover maps (one for each district of the country) was produced. Each map displaying an area-statistic for the land cover and various standard cartographic information, including map index, production documentation, legends, etc. The information of these maps where generalized; vertexes weeded out from arc, polygons under a certain area eliminated and the land cover classification system 'collapsed' to fewer classes. The originals for these maps were produced at the project printer, followed by reproduction by means of optic color separation.

GPS measurement in the field during a training session

The 1:50,000 maps are available directly from LUPP in Thimphu. They are produced on request, since the total needed number of each sheet is limited. Errors and changes are reported from the users, changes are entered on a running basis. To document the 'version' of the maps the date of the resent-most file used for the specific map sheet is printed on the map. Further, the land cover area statistic is calculated each time a sheet is plotted. The sheets are produced by means of a menu-driven SML procedure, enabling in/exclusion of layers, different color modes, exclusion of legends, batch- or single sheet mode etc.

The digital administrative boundaries gave a natural opportunity to develop a system for display of various statistic information. The polygons of the Districts and the Village blocks were numbered according to the system used by the central statistic authorities, in that way enabling relation to any data registered. The farming systems data-base, another output of LUPP, was designed to meet the same standards.

As part of the local planning activities, production of 1:25,000 maps have been initiated. The maps have been used, paying attention to the well-known problem that, when 'blowing up' maps, the accuracy can't be expected to be better than their origin. A 90 x 90 m digital elevation model was available. On this basis 40 m contour lines and various terrain features, such as slope and aspect, have been included. Further, agricultural activity on steep slopes and relative flat area, not at the moment occupied by agriculture, have been included in the map-series.

A system of quality assurance (QA) was implemented as an integral part of the database and map production. The QA was set up to involve both the GIS-operators, the project non-GIS staff and the end users, - the planners and agricultural extensionists in the ministry of agriculture and the regional administrations. The figure shows a brief chart of the QA process.

Back to Content.

Implementation considerations and strategies.

Objectives of the mapping activities

The objectives and expectations to the mapping activities were from the beginning fairly modest. A production of land use maps in 1:100,000 on a regional level and 1:500,000 on the national level. The production should as an outset be based on a set of manually drawn map-manuscripts in a working scale of 1:50,000. Digital techniques were only briefly considered as an editing tool in the data collection phase.

Collaborative organisations

A few other governmental bodies were prior to the fielding of LUPP (late 1992) working with GIS and AM. The Department of Forestry (DOF, Ministry of Agriculture) was producing maps for selected areas by means of PC ARC/INFO. The Survey department (Home Ministry) was running some early trials of digitizing, using the Swedish produces AM/GIS software AutoKA. The fact that DOF was already using PC ARC/INFO was part of making the choice of PC ARC/INFO for LUPP obvious. The collaboration between LUPP and DOF has expanded over the years both in terms of exchange of experiences and data.

Other Organisations have used the LUPP GIS laboratory as an outset for their emerging GIS-activities. This includes Department of Geology and Mines and National Environmental Commission. LUPP staff has been used as advisor and trainer. At some occasions staff from other organisations have been joining LUPP for extended periods for on-the-job training.

Data background

Practically digital map information was present when the project started. All needed information had to be digitized nationally. The choice of software had to pay very much attention to the data-capture facilities. The analogue map background (1:50,000) was in fairly good condition and almost nationally complete.

Human resources development

Obviously no staff of GIS-knowledge was available in Bhutan when the project started. Never the less the staff initially attached to the GIS laboratory learned tremendously fast and worked very hard. The goals of the GIS activities would not have been accomplished without them.

Land Use Planning GIS-Staff, winter 1996-1997

Parallel to and integrated with the GIS activities were the land use mapping activities. Map manuscripts were produced by the Land Resources unit of the project, then handed over to GIS for digitizing. The production of the manuscripts was made as a part of the training sessions running for regional planning and extension officers. It was running in three phases: 1) Basic training (1 week in the capital of Thimphu). Including Field surveying techniques, map reading, GPS, presentation of the basic concepts and practices of digital cartography etc. 2) 2 weeks field course. Practically filed survey and production of baseline map manuscripts (manuscripts completed by UPP staff at the return to the Thimphu office). 3) Field course at the return of the first version of the 1:50,000 land use maps. Practically usage of the maps and correction of errors.

This mode of joint training and production served several purposes: The maps were made more relevant to the end-users, the quality of the final products were enhanced and, - not the least, - the institutional necessity of organizational collaboration was initiated. The goal of producing land use maps was made a common one for the planners and the mappers.

Technological considerations

The local availability of technical support for PC hardware repair and maintenance were in 1992, close to nil. When equipping the project a complete set of spare-parts and fine mechanic tools was included and hardware issues played an important role in the training of the staff. Anything at a higher level than PC's, e.g. UNIX workstations would have been completely out of the question without also making appropriate support present.

Where no local support is available, or it cannot be expected that the advisors or local project-staff can maintain and repair high-end hardware, a lower technological standard must be set. Further, it is important that the systems are made scaleable, i.e. configurations must be designed to enable 'stand-alone' operation for the system units. E.g. 1)Each (PC-) workstation should be able to run undependable of each other in situations of LAN faults, 2) it should be possible to run plotters directly from the PC's parallel port, 3) UPS's (se below) should be supplied to each unit, rather that as a central supply etc.

A LAN-based system is an obvious necessity for smooth and efficient operation of a GIS. But in a situation of LAN fault, it should still be possible to operate the system until spare-parts and support (in terms of technician, correspondence etc.) reaches the site. In some cases it can also be an advantage to split the system units into tasks. I.e. one PC is used solely for digitizing, one for plotting (plotter connected parallely as an alternative to a LAN connection) etc. A set of crossed 0-modem cables and a simple communication software can prove very useful in a tight situation.

In most developing countries special attention must be paid to power supply. In most developed countries Uninterruptible power Supply (UPS) is implemented to ensure continued operation of LAN servers in a case of complete power drop out. Further, in developing countries PC's and other fine electronic equipment must be ensured continued power of a stabile voltage. A suede of UPS's, voltage stabilizers and surge-protectors are often facilitated for the purpose. It is important that the supply is split on a series of UPS's etc. to ensure that the possible break down of one units doesn't block the entire system.

Organisational development

As the more or less informal collaboration between LUPP and other organizations grew the need of a formal strategy for collaboration became visible. In a smaller country like Bhutan the need for coordinated efforts in terms of institutional capacity building, technical expertise, training facilities, data collection etc. are even more expressed that in larger countries.

A future objective is to involve the regional officers directly in the correction of existing map layers, production of data for local planing purposes and production of local planning maps. It is the intention to install ARCVIEW in four out of 20 districts (Dzonkhas). The system design and setup, considering technical, organizational and human matters will be a challenge to the central Land Use Planning staff.

A few words on the limitations of the current setup

In the later phases of the project the limitations of the chosen setup have become apparent. The lack of raster analysis capability in PC ARC/INFO for DEM was obvious. At present IDRISI is used for the purpose but further functionality is needed. The option of Spatial Analyst (ARCVIEW) can be considered as an alternative to the GRID module of a possible NT-workstation full ArcInfo installation.

Additionally the limitations of PC ARC/INFO in terms of speed and analytical capabilities when dealing with large quantities of data have become clean. It can be done, - but it takes a serious amount of work-arounds.

Back to Content.

Selected References.

Bernhardson, T. 1989. Geografiske Informationsystemer (also available in English). Vett & Viten, A/S 1992. Isbn. 82-412-0107-9.

DANIDA, 1996. Landestrategi for Bhutan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Denmark.

DANIDA, 1997. Denmark's Development Assistance, 1995-96. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Denmark.

Huxhold W.E. and Levinsohn, A.G. 1995. Managing Geographic Information System Projects. Oxford University Press, N.Y.

Skov-Petersen, H. 1995. Using PC ARC/INFO for a National GIS System. ARCNEWS, winter 1995, Esri.

Back to Content.

Back to the Top.

More nice pictures from Bhutan.

Setting up prayer flags

At the offset of a treck

Religious decoration on a cliff

Tashichho Dzong: The governmental head quarter and main monastery in the capital Thimphu.


1:100,000 regional land use. Out of a series of 20 map sheets.

One more sample of a 1:100,000 map?

1:100,000 regional land use. Out of a series of 20 map sheets

1:250,000 regional land use. Out of a series of 20 map sheets.

Sample altitude map.

Bhurtans geografical situation in the eastern Himilayas.

  1. Primary digitizing.
  2. Operators self check, by overlaying plot and original map or map-manuscript. Performed after finalization of each map layer.
  3. GIS-managers check of the quality compared with QA-guidelines. Performed after finalization of all layers for one map sheet.
  4. A 1:50,000 map sheet is circulated first to the involved officers at Land Use Planning Section, then among regional planning and extension officers. Only after this stage data and hard copies are released to general use.
  5. Production of final 1:50,000 maps. Is always produced directly from the data base, - i.e. maps will always reflect the present content. Maps are marked with the latest data of change of any of the files and coverages involved.
  6. Data is converted to 1:100,000 and 1:250,000. Coverages are generalized, polygons of similar attributes are removed etc.
  7. 1:100,00 and 1:250,000 test plots are checked by relevant internal and external officers.
  8. Final production.

    Back to Content.

    Back to the Top.