A centre for national search and rescue (SAR) training was launched at Tashigatshel, Chukha, not far away from the place where six boys were washed away after waiting for hours for rescuers in 2009. Those who attended the ceremony could have recollected the tragic event, where after hours of clinging to their lives, the boys were washed in front of the helpless rescuers.

Many around Tashigatshel, we can surmise, could have wished such a facility and trained professionals existed a long time ago. The six boys would have lived to share the story of how they were rescued. Nonetheless, the opening of the SAR centre is a welcomed development. It is a priority for many reasons.

Not many can relate to the importance of such a vital facility (professional rescue team). But those who have lost loved ones would appreciate the government’s policy and thank development partners for the support. As a country located in a fragile mountain ecosystem, we are vulnerable to disasters. Just this year we witnessed how lives and properties were robbed by freak weather conditions or manmade disasters. We saw how a group of loggers lost their lives trying to escape a forest fire, how more than a score of people lost their lives or went missing when a cloudburst caused a flash flood in Ungar, Lhuentse.

There is no guarantee that a search and rescue team would save lives depending on the nature of disasters, but as a Buddhist country, even recovering a body is considered an achievement to fulfill the funeral rites.  

As people affected by disasters – man-made or natural – talk of search and rescue, many feel that we lack the facility and professionals. The need for professional SAR teams would increase with Bhutan becoming more vulnerable to disasters, natural and man-made. Climate change is a big threat to Bhutan. The risk from glacial lake outburst floods, landslides, floods, drought or wildfires is real, and on the rise. 

In the urban areas, clustered settlements are a threat not recognised. A fire in a building at the busy Norzin lam or in the extended towns of Taba or Babesa could spell disaster. Are we ready to rescue lives and save properties? The pattern of settlement has changed in the last one decade making us more vulnerable to disasters. We need to be prepared.

The centre at Tashigatshel is expected to enable and facilitate the government and relevant agencies in the formation of qualified SAR teams as per the international standards or guidelines. While it can churn out a pool of professional SAR responders, enhance preparedness, and plans to deploy at least a SAR team in every dzongkhag with basic SAR equipment, there is much in wanting.

SAR teams can work only when they have equipment. We need equipment to make rescue operations swift and successful. The seven boys in Chukha, for instance, held on to a nylon rope before they were washed away. A diver of the Royal Bhutan Police deployed to search for a missing body in the Thimpchhu couldn’t dare to venture into the depths because he trained diving at a private swimming pool. 

The establishment of the centre is a good start. Quite often, we tend to forget the objective after the opening ceremony. SAR has become a priority today. It should not be forgotten. Perhaps, this could be a good political pledge to convince voters.