A wake-up call!

Being in the young Himalayan mountains, Bhutan sits on one of the most seismically active zones in the world. Earthquakes are just one of the natural calamities among the many that we ought to be worried about.

Natural disasters are beyond human control. That’s the fact. But there are ways to prepare so that consequences are minimal. That, too, is a fact. So where are we today in relation to these facts and reality?

An earthquake of magnitude 5.4 struck near the Sikkim-Bhutan border Monday at 8:50pm. Going by the earthquake magnitude scale, 5.4 on Richter scale (M) is a minor event; tremors can be felt, of course, but the extent of damage, if at all, will be small.

Because it is difficult to predict earthquakes, there is no way to find out or even come close to conjecturing the magnitude of disasters awaiting us.

The way we are building disaster preparedness, there is a need to think and plan ahead, urgently.

A new study, EquiP-Bhutan, gives us a worst-case earthquake scenario in Bhutan. In the event there is a powerful shake at night, there could be at least 9,000 fatalities; 10,000 serious injuries; some 45,000 people could be displaced. Wangdue, Punakha, Thimphu, and Paro where 33 percent of the population reside, the risks are high. 

Bhutan has experienced some powerful earthquakes. The 1897 earthquake which measured M 8.7 was perhaps the biggest and most destructive in history. More recently, the M 6.1 September 2009 and M 6.9 September 2011 earthquakes claimed lives and caused untold damage to property. Together, the earthquakes damaged 11,927 rural homes, 67 health facilities, 1,086 heritage sites and 56 RNR centres.

Climate change is a reality and we need to more resilient. Being in the mountains, not least on the seismically active zone, Bhutan’s vulnerability to natural disasters will only grow. Past climate data are hard to come by but that is not even necessary. The 1994 GLOF and windstorms of 2011, 2013 and 2014 stand testimony to the effects of changing climatic conditions. Flash floods and forest fires are becoming increasingly common.

Because research on earthquake risks in Bhutan is few and far between, the significance of the study cannot be undermined. EquiP-Bhutan has modelled a range of different earthquakes between M 7.0 and M 8.5 and it found that of 65 big earthquakes, at least five could cause more than 5,000 fatalities.

The Monday earthquake along the Sikkim-Bhutan border is a wake-up call. There is a need to develop and prop up response and coordination through periodic simulation exercises to identify gaps and improve preparedness. We need to improve and solidify communication linkages.

It is time we gave disaster management a special priority and that means building an institution with the capability to study dangers and respond. We can and should do much more than training volunteers.

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