Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

The bridge over Baunijhora stream at Pasakha, Phuentsholing remained closed to traffic yesterday after a flash flood following continuous rain in the past few days submerged it in debris.

Four excavators were deployed the whole day yesterday to clear sediments and debris but they kept on washing downstream.

Along with the bridge, the nearby Ahalay Land Customs Station (LCS) has also been severely hit as the debris and sediments have entered the office buildings.

Although residents managed to evacuate to higher and safer areas, 90 vehicles, including more than 50 industrial trucks were stranded on both sides of the swollen stream. If the bridge does not open, more industrial trucks are expected to be stranded today.

The 50-metre multicellular bridge is an important link between Phuentsholing and Pasakha, including the industrial estate. The bridge was completed in May 2019. It was one of the three South Asia Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) projects in Pasakha constructed to improve the Pasakha bypass road and connect the industrial estate.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded over Nu 324 million (M) in grants for these three SASEC projects. The multicellular bridge and 1.3km road were allocated Nu 115M, while Nu 77M was accorded for the 123-metre pre-stressed concrete girder bridge over Bhalujhora and Nu 132M for the gabion wall upstream of Baunijhora stream.

As Baunijhora is prone to such flash floods, residents said history repeats itself at Baunijhora almost every year as it did yesterday. On June 24, 2019, a month after construction was completed, flash floods caused similar challenges and blocked traffic causing disruptions for several days.

This time, however, the flood could have been prevented if mitigating measures were taken earlier on. After the flash floods in 2019, two construction companies, Rigsar Construction Company and Bhaskar Construction were allowed to dredge or clear the riverbed materials (debris) on a pro-bono basis in February 2021. This means the construction companies privately invested to clear the debris and used the dredging materials for their own benefit. No floods were reported that year.

However, this year, the construction companies’ forest clearance to dredge the debris had expired. Although Rigsar Construction tried to get the clearance, the relevant agencies handed it in only on June 16, which many in Phuentsholing say was “too late”.

On June 16, the Gedu forest division issued the clearance to the Department of Roads (DoR) regional office in Phuentsholing, after which the debris clearing work was offered to Rigsar Construction. The clearance was issued as a “disaster mitigation measure” as per the request submitted by the Phuentsholing DoR office.

An official from Rigsar construction said that there was no flash flood in 2021 because they were given the work to clear the debris in February 2021.

“Our time was until December 2021. We did our job until then,” he said, adding that the clearance expired thereafter.

One contractor in Phuentsholing said that the pro-bono basis is a win-win situation but government agencies keep prolonging.

“That is why private investors are losing interest in such volunteer work,” he said.

DoR chief engineer in Phuentsholing, Karma Dorji said that they have been at the site since 6am in the morning yesterday.

“This time the debris keeps on flooding repeatedly.”

Karma Dorji said Rigsar Construction was given the clearance and three to four excavation machines were deployed accordingly. The construction company’s staff are also there.

“But the clearance came late,” Karma Dorji said.

Pasakha tshogpa, Prabhat Rai said that clearing the debris was difficult.

“The sediments are getting washed time and again despite the clearing,” he said. “People will not volunteer if this is the case.”

Prabhat Rai also said that the situation at Baunijhora affected people living in Pasakha and nearby areas because their children couldn’t go to school at Chumigthang MSS.

“This has always been a major problem,” he said, adding that due to such flash floods residents also are not able to visit the hospital.

“Although there is a primary health centre, it doesn’t help during the monsoon.”

On June 15, the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology had forecasted moderate to heavy rain from a few places in the southern parts of the country. Even before this, the centre had made it public that the country was likely to experience “slightly above normal” rainfall this monsoon.