More on Bhutan

Facts about Bhutan

  • Population of around 765,000
  • 12 percent live below the poverty line
  • Life expectancy is 69 years

Bhutan is a small, landlocked country in South Asia. Perched in the south eastern Himalayas between India and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, it occupies an area of 38,394 km2, 71 percent of which is covered by forest. Due to its mountainous topography, less than 14 percent of its total land area is agricultural, and only about 8 percent is suitable for cultivating arable crops that are used for both human consumption and livestock fodder.

The country has three geographic areas. The southern foothills rise sharply from 100 to 1,500 m, and have a hot, subtropical climate with high annual rainfall of between 2,500 and 5,500 mm. The Inner Himalayas have elevations of between 1,500 and 3,000 m; here, summers are hot and winters are cool, with rainfall of between 1,000 and 2,000 mm. The Higher Himalayas, in the north, range between 3,000 and 7,550 m and have an alpine climate, with less than 1,000 mm of precipitation and peaks continually covered with snow.  

This third area is very inaccessible and is the least populated. By contrast, the capital Thimphu in the western interior is inhabited by almost 12 percent of the entire population.

Until the 1950s Bhutan was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. Then, as now, livelihoods of the vast majority involved subsistence farming: small-scale crop production and migratory herding. Greater interaction with developed countries opened up opportunities for foreign aid and economic growth that might eventually lift the Bhutanese people out of poverty – though not, the Government was determined, at the cost of the nation’s exceptionally rich biodiversity.

In 1961, they launched the first of a series of innovative five-year economic development plans based on two, interlinked core principles: equitability and environmental sustainability.  Successive Governments have succeeded in adhering to these plans, preferring to measure progress in terms of Gross National Happiness (to which habitat conservation is integral) than GDP. More than a quarter of the country’s landscape and 60 percent of its forests are protected. As a result, despite rapid economic growth Bhutan is one of only a handful of nations with negative carbon emissions.

Nevertheless, it remains extremely vulnerable to the effects of the rest of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions. In time, climate change-related melting in the Himalayas may become a major threat both to Bhutan’s drinking water and to what is now the country’s key export industry, hydropower. 

Economic diversification and poverty reduction are largely contingent on education, and in urban areas take-up has been high with a corresponding rise in life prospects. In the 2015 UNDP human development index Bhutan’s rank rose to 132nd out of 188 countries. However, most of Bhutan’s poorest people live in rural areas where children and young people are needed to work: if they cannot contribute their family may face greater food insecurity.

Since 1974, WFP has been working with the Government to develop and implement its school meals programme. This has several purposes: to combat malnutrition, increase enrolment, and reduce gender and economic inequality. Today, WFP helps provide meals to more than 25,000 school children in Bhutan and, although many challenges remain in achieving Zero Hunger in Bhutan, the programme has been extremely successful. We are now in the process of handing the management to the Government.

What are the current issues in Bhutan?

Bhutan’s population is subject to the combined effects of several problems. These are:

  • Malnutrition and poverty

    More than 12 percent of the population of Bhutan live below the national poverty line of US$ 28 per person per month, and one-third of the population suffers from food insecurity.

    More than a third of children show signs of stunted growth caused by chronic malnutrition. Six percent of children are too thin for their height, a condition known as wasting that is caused by acute malnutrition. 

    The mortality rate for children under the age of five has significantly improved in recent years, but still sits at about 36 deaths per 1,000 children born. 
    More than five percent of primary age children fail to enrol in school.

  • Economic vulnerability

    Although Bhutan's small economy has grown rapidly in recent years, it continues to be aid dependent, import driven and highly vulnerable. Agriculture provides the main livelihood for 55 percent of the population; however, Bhutan still depends on imports for more than one third of its cereal needs. 

  • Isolation

    Because it is located high in the Himalayas, Bhutan’s rugged landscape has made it difficult to build roads, mountain trails and other transport infrastructure. Many communities are very remote, further exacerbating their food insecurity. 

  • Natural disasters

    Bhutan is highly prone to natural disasters and this has the potential to significantly affect long-term food security. Earthquakes, floods (including flash floods and glacial lake outburst floods), windstorms, wild fires, and landslides are common. 
    Climate change could worsen disaster risk and food insecurity.

What is the World Food Programme doing in Bhutan?

WFP’s work in Bhutan aims to combat child malnutrition and, by encouraging school enrolment and attendance, to support the country’s development plan to reduce poverty.

  • School meals

    To help the Government increase primary and secondary school enrolment, especially for girls, WFP supports efforts to provide school meals across the country through a programme that has been running since 1974. 

    In 2015, the Government’s school meals programme supported 30,000 children. WFP concurrently provided food assistance directly to another 25,000 children in 196 schools.

    Providing meals to school children from rural and food-insecure families helps to address hunger and malnutrition, allowing students to better focus and learn. It also reduces the financial burden on poor parents by supplementing food bills.

    This acts as an incentive to sending children to learn and has been one of the reasons for a reduction in gender disparities in education in recent years, as well as an increase in enrolment rates across the country by seven percent since 2008. Children taking part in the programme also exhibit lower rates of certain micronutrient deficiencies, improving their health. 

    Since 2014 WFP has been gradually handing over the responsibility for the provision of meals to the Ministry of Education. WFP’s objective is to help the Government achieve self-reliance in the management of the school meals programme across the country by 2018. With this in mind, current activities include training and improving the capacity of the Ministry of Education to set policies, manage the supply chain and independently coordinate the programme.  

World Food Programme partners in Bhuthan

WFP cannot fight global hunger and poverty alone. These are our partners in Bhutan:

Featured Bhutan publications

  • Bhutan: WFP Country Brief (PDF, 593 KB)

    A Country Brief provides the latest snapshot of the country strategy, operations, operational highlights (achievements and issues/challenges), partnerships and country background.

Looking for more publications on Bhutan? Visit the Bhutan publications archive.