This is the first such disaster unit to be deployed outside the country

Earthquake: Bhutan will dispatch a medical assistance team, comprising of at least 54 members, to Nepal,  today, following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country on April 25.

The team is being deployed on the Royal Command of His Majesty the King.

A medical unit of 11 doctors, including both surgeons and medical specialists, and 19 nurses and technicians of the health ministry and the Royal Bhutan Army form the core of the team.

The medical team will be assissted by eight supporting staff, including an electrician.

The team which will provide medical assistance for earthquake relief operations, will also be assisted by 15 desuups.

The team will be equipped with portable x-ray and ultra sound machines, among others. They will also carry their own food rations.

The team is being coordinated by the Kidu Mobile Medical Unit.

This is the first time a medical relief team is being deployed outside Bhutan’s borders for a disaster.

The team is expected to travel to Kathmandu today on a special relief flight being operated by the national airline Drukair.  The aircraft on its way back to Bhutan will bring back stranded Bhutanese in Nepal.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and the health minister, Tandin Wangchuk are also expected to travel with the team to Nepal  today to offer their condolences and express solidarity to the government of Nepal.  However, a final decision on whether the two may accompany the team had not been made as of last night.

The final number of total members of the team is also expected to be confirmed only today.

A total of 88 Bhutanese, including the U-14 girls national football team that was in Kathmandu for the Asian Football Federation regional championship, returned on two scheduled flights to Bhutan, yesterday.

Both Drukair and Tashi Air expect to fly their scheduled flights to Kathmandu today.

Drukair will also carry out an additional flight today for passengers that had to be returned to Paro mid-way through their journey, following a 6.7 magnitude aftershock that closed Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan international airport, yesterday. The flight had already been diverted to Gaya prior to the aftershock as a result of parking congestion being experienced at Tribhuvan.

Drukair has also announced that all passengers flying to and from Kathmandu in the next seven days, counting today, can reschedule for no fee or cancel for a full refund.

An estimate of how many Bhutanese may still be in Nepal is unknown.

A foreign ministry official said that the ministry only had information on how many Bhutanese were working at the SAARC secretariat and the two airlines’ offices, and all were safe.  However, the official said that the ministry had asked Bhutanese officials working at the SAARC secretariat to coordinate and keep track of Bhutanese looking to return to Bhutan.

As of last night, the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) was still reporting no incidents of damage or casualties in Bhutan as a result of the earthquake and aftershocks.

Was this earthquake the predicted “Big One”?

The earthquake experts have long warned that a large earthquake of a magnitude of around 8 is overdue in the Himalayan region based on the Seismic Gap theory. A seismic gap is a zone along a tectonically active area, where no earthquakes have occurred recently although continuous stress build-up is known to be occurring. This probability forecast is based on the idea that a fault builds up stress until it reaches a critical point, and releases the strain as an earthquake. Then the whole process starts over. Accordingly, the faults that have not had an earthquake in the longest time are most at risk and those that just had large earthquakes are least at risk.

Based on the Seismic Gap theory, three seismic gaps, i.e. Kashmir Gap, Central Gap (Nepal) and Assam Gap, which are the areas expected to have large earthquakes were identified in the Himalayas.

As predicted, the current earthquake (magnitude 7.9) of April 25 occurred in the “Central Gap” resulting in the deaths of over 1,800. Bhutan remains unaffected by this earthquake because we are more than 400 kilometres away from the epicentre. What if this earthquake occurred in the “Assam Gap”? How prepared are we?

By Dr. Karma Kuenza

(PhD, Earthquake Engineering)

On whether any alerts have been issued to response teams or any preemptive measures activated, DDM director Chhador Wangdi said that the department had asked the national broadcaster BBS to air an advisory on earthquake safety.  The advisory asks people to remain alert and not to panic.  It also says that aftershocks will continue for many days until the tectonic plates settle.

The DDM advisory, which is available on their website, also covers how to personally react if an earthquake occurs when indoors, outdoors, and post-earthquake.

(Dr) Karma Kuenza, who completed his doctorate on earthquake engineering, said that the Nepal earthquake had shown that traditional structures are vulnerable to powerful earthquakes.  He said that, while in Bhutan’s urban areas, building standards require that measures to withstand earthquakes are incorporated into design and construction, traditional structures in rural areas may be similarly vulnerable.

Dr Karma Kuenza added that questions needed to be asked if Bhutan was prepared for an earthquake of similar magnitude, in terms of not only building standards, but on post-earthquake measures, like rescue and relief.

Bhutan’s last major earthquakes occurred in 2011 (magnitude 6.8)  and 2009 (6.3).

A citizen’s initiative Bhutan4Nepal, to raise money for recovery efforts in Nepal was also launched yesterday.  Dawa Penjore, the person behind the initiative, said that many Bhutanese visit Nepal and have many friends there as well. “Nepal is close to many of our hearts,” he said.

Dawa Penjor, who is also the executive director for the Bhutan Media Foundation, added that once enough funds were raised, it would be channeled through a local non-profit agency, and the list of donors and donations published in the media. “I’ve got pretty good responses so far,” he said.

Meanwhile, the death toll from the Nepal earthquake continues to rise with the latest figure already exceeding 2,300.

By Gyalsten K Dorji