Going through Kuensel’s article “Is Bhutan ready for the big one?” and other opinions expressed, I could not help, but note some disturbing remarks made by the article, Disaster Department’s Director and an official from Department of Engineering Services, about “being not prepared in case of major earthquake in Bhutan.”
Since, I was heading the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) from 2009 to 2013, my conscience will haunt me, if I do not clarify the issue on being “prepared” or “not prepared” and inform the public, who are feeling slightly jittery, at the moment, after reading the articles in the media.
The question of whether or, not, we are ready for “the big one” is very subjective and relative and we need to be careful in jumping to conclusion. I say relative, because compared to six or, seven years ago, Bhutan now, has adequate capacity, knowledge, skills, experience, awareness, conviction and commitment to tackle disasters, after establishment of the DDM in 2005 to promote, co-ordinate, support and facilitate disaster management in the country.
In 2009, I was transferred to this new department and since then, I along with my staff went headlong with conviction in institutionalizing systems/protocols, creating awareness on disaster risks and their prevention/mitigation.
Much has been achieved in preparing for any disaster and the present DDM has adequate capacity, as never before, under the proper guidance of the government, the much needed contributions (both finance & expertise) development partners/donors made and above all the magnanimity and wise leadership provided by His Majesty the King of Bhutan.
To prove the point, here I would like to highlight some of the more important preparedness works done by DDM up till 2013 end, as follows:
Enactment of Disaster Management Act of Bhutan -2013.
Finalization of Disaster Management Rules & Regulations
Formation of Dzongkhag Disaster Management Committees in all Dzongkhags and four main Thromdes.
Formation of 20- member National Search & Rescue Team (NaSART) in February 2012, who are fully trained (and adequately equipped) at par with international standards.
Formation of Dzongkhag (and gewog) Search and Rescue Teams, including the four main Thromdes.
Supported the preparation of Dzongkhag Disaster Management and Contingency Plans and implemented mitigation and preparedness measures through community- based interventions.
Mainstreaming of Disaster Risk Reduction measures into both Central Agencies’ and Local Government’s Five Year Plans and Local Development Planning Manual. Now Disaster Risk Management element is one of the accepted National Key Result Areas during preparation of plans.
For enhancement of Disaster Management capacity in Bhutan, a Project funded by GFDRR- the World Bank, through which, the Concept of Multi-Hazard Assessment was initiated and hazard maps developed.
Conducted detailed human resources assessment of DDM and key disaster risk management agencies to identify and prioritize the needs, to develop sustainable capacity building plans and applicable system for strengthening disaster management capacity.
Through “School-Based Disaster Preparedness in Bhutan,” a project with funds from DIP-ECHO, Save the Children, a number of core group of trainers from various schools were trained on disaster preparedness and planning and intensive monitoring in all the schools were carried out.
Dzong Fire Safety Sensitization and Awareness Training (and formation of Dzong Fire Committees) was conducted in six Dzongkhags.
Liaised with other relevant sectors and agencies (including vulnerable Communities) to institute early warning systems for various natural hazards and disaster risks.
Maintained a Disaster Database and Information Management System to support risk reduction initiatives and effective response during disasters. Master plan for Emergency Tele-Communication Network has been prepared for Bhutan.
Fostered partnerships with both national and inter-national agencies and organizations for knowledge sharing and obtaining support and resources for disaster risk management activities and initiatives in Bhutan.
Developed relevant standards and guidelines for relief and compensation for affected victims. Formulated recovery and rehabilitation plans post 2009 and 2011 earthquakes in Bhutan.
DDM had also developed Bhutan Disaster Assessment Tool and Mechanism, tailor made to our Bhutanese conditions.
DDM reviewed and upgraded the then National Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan (NIPPP), to tackle pandemic diseases in the country.
Initiated the preparation of Community-Based Disaster Risk Management Plans (CBDRM) and conducted the training in sixteen Dzongkhags.
DDM conducted “Community-Based Health and First Aid Training” to train Health Workers working in the Communities to administer basic first aid, during disasters.
Safe earthquake construction trainings were conducted in six eastern dzongkhags for all local engineers, carpenters & masons to build rural houses, with locally available materials, incorporating earthquake resilient design and construction techniques.
Vulnerability atlas for Bhutan was prepared by SAARC in close collaboration with DDM.
The most important activity that needs to be carried out by the department/ministry is the immediate setting up of National Emergency Operation Centre. This centre is vital during disasters and cannot be undermined. The only way to prevent deaths/causalities and damages during major disasters, is prompt response through effective multi-sectoral co-ordination, deployment of search & rescue teams, reaching relief materials on time, reliable communication network and centralized/unified command & control system, which will be provided only by this centre.
The setting up of this facility got delayed due to the failure on the part of the concerned agency to allot government land for its construction.
Apart, from this, the overall Disaster Management System in Bhutan is reasonably commendable compared to some countries in the region and that too, considering the efforts put in by DDM within a short span of time.
However, we cannot afford to be complacent, but be prepared for any eventualities at all times. Even though, earthquakes cannot be predicted as to their occurrence, timing and intensity, we in Bhutan, are fortunate so far, not to have experienced such devastating consequences like our neighbour Nepal recently experienced.
I guess being prepared for any eventualities is the only safeguard and protection against these destructive natural forces, in minimizing deaths and destructions. But it all boils down to the magnitude (in this case earthquake), depth/shallowness, location, timing and distance from the epicentre, the quality and strength of the affected structures, earth-geology etc., over most of which, we have no control.
However, as highlighted above; the required level of preparedness and the capacity to deal with such disasters have been adequately instituted in Bhutan, even though, there are still rooms for improvement.
One such notable and far-sighted initiative is the establishment of De-Suung Institution, emanated right from the Throne. His Majesty, the King Commanded to start integrated De-Suung Program from 2011 and till date about 1,765 De-Suups have been trained.
These De-Suups are primarily trained in Disaster related activities like Search & Rescue, Relief and Reconstruction operations. They are being deployed during disasters in the country as and when required.
His Majesty, the King had also commanded the Royal Bhutan Army to get fully involved in response operations during disasters. It is very heart warming to note that during the past disasters in the country, the armed forces have done a splendid job by raising to the occasion and effectively responding to disasters and saving lives and properties and providing shelter to the affected people as per the Royal command.
Besides, the Gyalpoi Zimpoen’s office, with dedicated team has been very prompt in responding to disasters, anywhere in the country to provide relief items and “Soelra” to the affected victims.
However, let us all sincerely pray together and wish that all Bhutanese people continue to be “Safe and Happy” in this GNH Land of ours.