Better prepared, but not there yet

Scientists warn of a massive earthquake in the Himalayan region in the near future

Disaster: In the wake of the recent Manipur earthquake that affected 248 structures in 16 dzongkhags and scientists cautioning of a mega earthquake in the region, the disaster management department is confident of its preparedness.

Although detailed and comprehensive seismic zoning of Bhutan is unavailable, its proximity to the northeastern parts of India, which are in the ‘most active’ seismic Zone V according to Bureau of Indian Standards, indicates that the majority of the country is either in Zone IV or V.

A day after the magnitude-6.7 Manipur earthquake, Indian media citing renowned earthquake authorities warned of an earthquake magnitude of 8.2 or greater on the Richter scale may hit the already ruptured Himalayan region.

Two earthquakes in 2009 and 2011 damaged 153 schools across the country and caused damages worth Nu 3.6 billion. More than a dozen people lost their lives in 2009 Narang, Mongar earthquake.

“In the past few years, we have come a long way in terms of preparedness,” Department of Disaster Management director Chador Wangdi said.

Immediately after the Nepal earthquake in May last year, the Cabinet established a high-level multi-sectorial earthquake preparedness committee comprising 15 members and chaired by the home minister.

The department has trained search and rescue teams in all 20 dzongkhags and provided basic kits to 16 dzongkhags. The rest will be given this year.

It also released guidelines for disaster management and contingency plans of dzongkhags last year.

“We’re now focusing more on the key stakeholders such as health and education ministries, police, and they have developed contingency plans and a few other agencies are developing their plans,” Chador Wangdi said.

The dzongkhags are also developing such plans to deal disasters.

“The situation has definitely improved; we’ve a helicopter, Desuups are trained in search and rescue, and we’re exploring better communication options,” Chador Wangdi said.

One area it still has much to do is in communications, vital in times of disasters.

When the Manipur earthquake hit, DDM officials and disaster focal person in the dzongkhags had difficulty in communicating. The mobile network did not function.

The UNICEF has agreed to supply a satellite phone each to every dzongkhag this year, to improve communication during disasters.

“We’re also negotiating with telecom companies to keep certain phone numbers of key officials during such times,” the director said.

However, Bhutan will have to pray that an earthquake doesn’t hit us for the next eight months. An effective coordination centre will be ready in eight months. The contract was awarded yesterday.

In absence of the centre, the director said an instant command centre that coordinates during emergencies was missing which made it difficult to coordinate even during a small forest fire incident.

DDM awarded the building of its interim command centre to National Housing and Development Corporation to be completed in eight months.

The one-storey prefabricated building will have communication sets, equipped with satellite phones, media conference, and other basic equipment to coordinate in times of calamities.

The September 2009 quake destroyed more than 1,900 homes in eastern Bhutan.

The engineering services department under works and human settlement has been working on strengthening rural homes.

It has completed the first round of training artisans and local government leaders on earthquake resistant building techniques in all dzongkhags.

“This year especially for the rural construction, we’ll complete the manual for confine masonry – the medium construction type between reinforced cement concrete and loadbearing construction,” the department’s chief engineer Karma Namgay said.

This type of construction may not cost much whereas it will be far stronger than the ordinary rural loadbearing house constructions.

Even as the department trains and plans better models, loopholes in implementation on the ground exists limiting the impact of their efforts.

There is no rule requiring all house constructions to seek design approvals from the dzongkhag engineer.

“Things are working, we’re preparing and doing our best with whatever resources are available to us,” Chador Wangdi said.

There were 19 seismic events that have affected Bhutan since 1897. An earthquake with a magnitude of 8.7 in the Shilong plateau, India, 118 years ago, had destroyed Punakha and Lingzhi dzongs and damaged Wangdue, Trongsa, Jakar and Tashichhodzong.

Tshering Palden

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