In 2009, magnitude 6.1 earthquake hit Bhutan. And, again, in 2011, the country experienced an earthquake. It measured 6.0 on the Richter scale.
As a country that sits on active seismic belt, not least in the heart of the Himalayas where rising global temperatures is increasingly threatening GLOF due to sweating glaciers, preparedness is the key. These two incidents, and the devastating flood before that (1994), reminded the nation that its disaster preparedness must be mordernised and bolstered to deal with impending challenges—man-made and natural.
When the earthquakes happened in 2009 and 2011, telecommunications networks failed which impeded rescue efforts. The resulting fear, panic and confusion did not help. Infrastructure damage was substantial and lives were lost, too.
Since then, significant progress has been made in the area of disaster risk management; National Disaster Management Authority was established and district-based disaster management and contingency plans have been developed.
With the help of the UN agencies and other development partners, a road map was developed for disaster risk management earlier this year. It was found that there was a need for more action to develop telecommunications system for effective response to disasters.
The communications ministry is in the process of endorsing the standard operating process (SOP). According to an engineer with Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT), Thuenzang Chophel, communication failure during disasters was caused by physical disruption of telecommunication network components, disruption in supporting network infrastructure and network congestion, among others.
“SOP will address the aforementioned failures by putting in place the telecommunication infrastructures during emergency,” he said.
To ensure enhanced and continued telecommunication service during emergencies at the national, dzongkhag, drungkhag, gewog and thromde levels, a detailed discussion was held among telecommunication sectors in Thimphu yesterday.
A draft emergency telecommunication preparedness and response action plan and a road map and strategic plans on emergency communications are expected by the end of two-day workshop.
The head of WFP Bhutan office, Svante Helms, said: “The outburst of two subsidiary lakes in Thorthormi earlier this year reminded us about the fragility of our environment and the risks that we are facing from natural disasters.”
He said that Bhutan was among the most at-risk countries along the 2,400km Himalayan arc from Pakistan in West to China in East. Factors such as non-optimal construction techniques, rapid urbanisation and initial adoption of disaster management practices further intensified the disaster risks.
Further to that, the overall progress in disaster management is impeded by threat from seismic information gap, lack of comprehensive national seismic hazard analysis and seismic maps.
An official from Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority (BICMA) said that radio communication services and use of mobile satellite services were the only option for disaster response and relief. “For that reason, Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway has been fully covered with mobile network for emergency communication.”
DITT can avail the services of South Asia Satellite during emergency communications during a disaster if the terrestrial network is damaged.
The department has installed 81 Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) in National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) in three regions, 20 district headquarters and 60 gewogs. These disaster communication networks will be utilised during times of disaster for emergency communications by first responders.
Officials from DITT, Department of Disaster Management, Bhutan Telecom, BICMA, Department of Geology and Mines, among others attended the workshop conducted by the Ministry of Information and Communications in collaboration with WFP.