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Here’s how WFP & the Govt of Bhutan are working together to reduce the impacts of disasters on lives and property 

Did you know that Bhutan is vulnerable to many types of natural disasters? In fact, the country is at risk of earthquakes, floods, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), landslides and forest fires. While many of these disasters are inevitable, if we are prepared and alert, we can ensure that the damage they cause is kept to a minimum. 

One way to do this is to increase the resilience of new and existing buildings in the Western region of Bhutan, especially adobe and reinforced concrete structures. Right now, structures that do not follow earthquake-resilient building codes may not hold up well if there is even a minor earthquake. In fact, adobe buildings could suffer three times as much damage and higher fatalities during an earthquake.

In addition to this, lives are also at risk because many people are unaware of what to do before, during, or after a disaster such as an earthquake. For example, it is sometimes said that staying indoors or standing under heavy door frames is the safest thing to do during an earthquake. However, one of the first things we should do is run outdoors to avoid the roof or heavy objects falling on us.

Why is disaster risk 

management important right now?

Given our position in the Himalayas, Bhutan is naturally prone to seismic activity. It is important to note that the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) has taken this threat seriously and has made significant progress in Disaster Risk Management. The RGoB has introduced earthquake-resilient construction and has worked with organizations such as UNDP, World Bank and USAID to adopt guidelines for improving seismic resilient construction techniques for rammed earth structures. 

In 2013, the RGoB established the National Disaster Management Authority and Disaster Management Committees in all 20 dzongkhags. Despite these major steps, Bhutan still requires robust data information systems, response plans and coordination systems to adequately respond to emergencies.

This is where WFP comes in. As the agency responsible for leading the UN’s Disaster Risk Management and response to climate change related disasters in Bhutan, WFP supports the RGoB in governance and coordination, data preparedness, logistics, emergency telecommunications and food security.

In general, it is better to be prepared for a disaster in advance, rather than wait until it happens. In fact, for every dollar invested in disaster preparedness, US$7 is saved from the economic losses caused by the associated recovery.

How Government and WFP are working 

together

In 2019, WFP supported the RGoB to develop the Roadmap for Disaster Risk Management in Bhutan. The Roadmap sets out priority actions for Government, UN agencies and other developmental partners, and focuses on six major areas: Disaster Awareness; Data Preparedness; Governance; Coordination; Resourcing; and Sector Preparedness. WFP and the Department of Disaster Management are in the process of establishing a new Disaster Risk Roadmap for Bhutan for 2022-2026, which will be completed by October 2021. This new Roadmap aims to provide a strategic direction to enhance disaster risk management, by identifying critical challenges and providing recommendations to address them.

Another major move we have been making has been to strengthen data preparedness. In 2021, WFP supported the RGoB in setting up and implementing the “72 Hours Rapid Assessment and Digital Vulnerability Database” to estimate the possible impacts of a disaster and enable a response within 72 hours. This digital system provides critical information immediately after a disaster takes place and can help responders understand the scale of the disaster, the number of people potentially displaced, and the amount of emergency assistance required. 

WFP also partnered with UK’s Durham and Newcastle Universities to research the potential impact of earthquakes on Bhutan. This Earthquake Impact Assessment Model assessed a range of possible seismic scenarios, with corresponding impacts across each of the 20 different dzongkhags during the day and night. Given Bhutan’s current range of preparedness, Bhutan’s worst-case scenario projection showed that an earthquake at night could cause at least 9,000 fatalities, 10,000 serious injuries and displace more than 40,000 people. Given that Bhutan’s entire population is barely 750,000, the potential scope of the damage is truly significant.

What’s next?

Today, more than 50% of WFP’s programmes across the world address the risks of disasters and their impact, reaching approximately 50 million people per year. Logistics preparedness is particularly central to disaster response and humanitarian operations. 

As the lead international agency for logistics in Bhutan, WFP is working together with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests – the government lead of the National Logistics Preparedness Working Group – to build the foundation for a robust logistics system to effectively respond to disasters. 

We are working closely with the RGoB and the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) to ensure that DDM officials and local officials have the skills and training they need to prepare and respond to earthquakes.

Overall, our priority is ensuring we have reliable research and data that helps us prepare for an emergency, as well as supporting the RGoB with strategic plans and operational capacity to respond to disasters. While we know that we are vulnerable to disasters here in Bhutan, we need not be helpless. Knowledge, preparation, and swift, effective responses can minimise risk and save lives. 

To learn more about WFP’s work in disaster risk management in Bhutan, follow us on Twitter @WFP_Bhutan or read the DRM factsheet: https://www.wfp.org/publications/disaster-risk-management-bhutan-2019-2023

Contributed by

Svante Helms, Head of Office, WFP Bhutan

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