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Making climate action possible in vulnerable communities

October 19, 2021

Tshewang Dorji at UNFCCC COP25 in Madrid, Spain
Photo credit: IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

Tshewang Dorji is an environmental engineer from Bhutan who works to help countries prepare for and cope with climate change with support from the GEF’s Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund. In an interview, he shared why this work is meaningful to him.

What does your role as GEF Climate Change Specialist entail?

Much of my work involves reviewing proposals for projects that could help Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and small island states increase their climate change resilience. The GEF manages two funds – the Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund – that support innovative climate adaptation solutions where they are most needed. I spend a lot of time engaging with the LDC Group and other government representatives to connect the dots between potential funding and well-designed solutions that can quickly make a difference and help people live safer and healthier lives, even in places with very limited means.

I am proud to be part of the GEF’s Climate Change Adaptation team, as the work we do makes a big difference in countries that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. I am grateful for the chance to focus on individual projects that have real, measurable impacts, while being connected to a broad set of initiatives and processes at an international level. It is an extraordinary feeling to see the ideas and feedback I offer while reviewing projects turn into real solutions that deliver results on the ground.

How did you get into this line of work?

Having received a scholarship to train in Australia as an environmental engineer, I was one of the first few professionals in my country with exposure to this field at that time. I started my career with the Bhutanese government in 2005 as an Environment Officer, working on environmental assessment legislation, formulating strategies for waste management and air pollution, and seeking to mainstream environmental, climate change, and gender equity concerns into national and local planning processes. Bhutan places a high priority on the environment and nature conservation in its socio-economic development agenda, and I very much enjoyed being part of this.

Still, around 2010, I realized that I needed to gain more knowledge to do this work effectively. This led me to pursue a master’s degree in environmental economics at Yale University. I then returned home to join the National Environment Commission’s climate change team. This role included working to develop and implement climate change projects, including those supported by the GEF, and to write Bhutan’s first climate pledge under the Paris Agreement. Also, I had the honor and privilege of representing Bhutan at the UNFCCC negotiations and other international fora, which led me to engage very closely with the LDC Group.

These experiences gave me a deeper understanding of the political dynamics and resource gaps affecting climate action and provided me with exposure to operational aspects of international funding mechanisms that help developing countries address climate change. I also learned how important international support can be for making climate action possible in vulnerable communities like mine. This is what prompted me to explore career options outside of my home country. The opportunity to work at the GEF came at a perfect time in this sense.

How has COVID-19 impacted your professional life?

I joined the GEF early in the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to work remotely from Bhutan. There is a 10-hour time difference to Washington, DC, where most of my colleagues are based. It isn’t easy at times. But I work with an amazing group of people who are sensitive to my circumstances and make adjustments, such as scheduling calls early in the day. Being “a day ahead” of colleagues gives me extra time to work toward deadlines and deal with time-sensitive matters, which can be positive. It is also meaningful to me to do this international work while remaining connected to my home culture and environment. On a lighter note, my unusual working hours have allowed me to carve out time to exercise – doing this has helped me to shed a few pounds and to turn up refreshed and energized for online meetings late at night and early in the morning.

Tshewang Dorji standing in front of a Bhutanese landscape
Photo courtesy of Tshewang Dorji

What stands out about the GEF’s approach to addressing climate change?

We know that countries on the front line of climate impacts face a significant funding gap, and time is running out. Building resilience bit-by-bit is not viable – adaptation investments need to happen urgently and at scale. In this context, the LDCF and SCCF have special roles to play. The LDCF is the only fund specifically focused on the needs of LDCs. It can deploy financing quickly to address countries’ top priorities. I know from my conversations with government officials that LDCs value this support as a key part of their climate planning. The SCCF also fills a key gap. It is helping to increase innovation and private sector investment in climate adaptation through direct project support, seed funding, and special initiatives such as the Challenge Program for Adaptation Innovation.

Is there a climate adaptation project that is close to your heart?

I was very happy to see the LDCF Council approve funding for a new project in Bhutan that will help improve the climate-resilience of the water sector. Bhutan has among the highest per-capita water availability in the world, but most areas of the country face severe water shortages that are getting worse because of climate change. This new initiative, to be implemented by UNDP, will introduce nature-based solutions to improve watershed management in some of Bhutan’s most fertile agricultural districts, also providing diversified income sources for rural communities and improving governance around water and climate change. The GEF’s support for the project has helped catalyze other investors and donors to join in, resulting in a package of support that will make a meaningful and lasting difference in a very important sector.

What are your hopes for the future?

Having grown up in a remote community in Bhutan at a time when there was no electricity, no roads, and no telecommunication, the pace of change in my own lifetime is already remarkable. Many experts believe that more dramatic changes are yet to come, fueled by Artificial Intelligence, algorithms, big data, cloud computing, etc. I sincerely hope the timeless human values of compassion, love, and kindness will co-exist with this technological progress.