As if the loss of the lives of 10 highlanders in Laya earlier this year was not enough, another landslide claimed the lives of a couple who died yesterday in Pemagatshel while their daughter is still missing and feared dead by now.
Natural calamities, mainly flash floods and landslides, are claiming more lives and causing increasingly severe damages to properties by the year. If anything the Gasa Tshachhu incident has taught us, it clearly indicates that we cannot wait to take mitigating measures against such threats. The river diversion works were deferred to be resumed this winter due to numerous reasons. The consequences were disastrous. Like the Gasa dzongdag said the trail of damages such forces of nature would leave would no doubt be beyond our imagination.
A similar flood wiped out the tshachhu in 2009. The whole area around the hot spring ponds were rebuilt at a cost of Nu 40 million, mostly borrowed money.
We were fully aware of something like this coming. That’s why the government pushed for the river diversion project worth Nu 26 million to divert the river and ensure the safety of the tshachhu. Officials now fear even the source of the tshachhu might be lost forever. Even if the source remains, it would take many months or even years to restore the popular hot spring to its original state.
There is no denying the gravity of such disasters is becoming more intense. What is more worrying is that we never know when and where a flash flood might occur.
It now appears we are past the warning stage. But are we prepared?
The answer will depend on to whom one directs the question. For instance, the weather forecast officials will say they have never been better prepared. We observed for a fact that the weather forecasting has improved to be much more precise than a few years ago.
What about local government officials? All dzongkhag agencies have disaster plans in place and are prepared to manage disasters. Many officials have been trained in search and rescue activities and the administrations are well equipped.
Then where must we be going wrong? People say it is only talk and not action.
Given the geology and the topography of our young mountains, a disaster could be waiting right around the next ridge. The vertical mountain cuttings for road construction only worsens our vulnerability to landslides.
The recent spate of tragedies also frames another imperative — of re-examining the ways in which mountains and high-altitude areas have been positioned in the country’s development discourse. The country’s science and environment institutions have to do more research and policy makers have to be abreast with such research while making decisions that impact fragile ecosystems.
We need to treat our mountain ecosystem with sensitivity and care, plug gaps in research. Climate change and its impact on lives and properties are evident from Siberia to Australia to Europe and the Americas. If it is not heat waves, it is floods or droughts.
Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction measures into development activities is vital to prevent soil erosion and ensure the sustainable development of mountain communities.
While we are pained to see our popular hot spring disappear, the thing about damaged property is that it can be replaced. People can’t be.