How prepared are we?

Being in the young Himalayan mountains, Bhutan sits on one of the most seismically active zones in the world. Because it is difficult to predict earthquakes, there is no way to find out or even come close to conjecturing the magnitude of disasters awaiting us. But that is no reason for us not to brace ourselves up for an imminent and potentially devastating shake.

A new study, EquiP-Bhutan, gives us a worst-case earthquake scenario in Bhutan. In the event there is a powerful shake at night, there could be at least 9,000 fatalities; 10,000 serious injuries; some 45,000 people could be displaced. Wangdue, Punakha, Thimphu, and Paro where 33 percent of the population reside, the risks are high. 

For a small country like ours, the numbers are staggering.

Bhutan has experienced some powerful earthquakes. The 1897 earthquake which measured 8.7 on Richter scale (M) was perhaps the biggest and most destructive in history. More recently, the M 6.1 September 2009 and M 6.9 September 2011 earthquakes claimed lives and caused untold damage to property. Together, the earthquakes damaged 11,927 rural homes, 67 health facilities, 1,086 heritage sites and 56 RNR centres.

What we must bear in mind is that changing climate and warming temperatures is making Bhutan more vulnerable to natural disasters. We may not have past climate data but we can tell even without their benefit that Bhutan has been of late experiencing extreme climate events. The 1994 GLOF and windstorms of 2011, 2013 and 2014 stand testimony to the effects of changing climatic conditions. Flash floods and forest fires are becoming increasingly common.

Because research on earthquake risks in Bhutan is few and far between, the significance of the study cannot be undermined. The study modelled a range of different earthquakes between M 7.0 and M 8.5. It found that of 65 big earthquakes, at least five could cause more than 5,000 fatalities.

Significantly, the study makes some important recommendations: there is a need to develop and prop up response and coordination through periodic simulation exercises to identify gaps and improve preparedness. This has been our greatest weakness. The last simulation exercise carried out in Thimphu spotted problems with communication linkages which rendered all the response strategies and efforts ineffective.

Communication failures still remain our biggest challenge in organising rescue operations during disaster events. That is why frequent simulation exercises become critically important. The impending disasters will have us done in completely otherwise.

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