Prepared for earthquake response:  Home minister

Quake: Bhutan is prepared in terms of response and relief but needs to strengthen its coordination and technical expertise should an earthquake strike the country, home minister Damcho Dorji said.

The tremors of the second earthquake that struck Nepal on May 12 collapsed a classroom wall in Lingzhi primary school, Thimphu and jolted the Cabinet to meet and discuss the country’s preparedness.

By then, the department of disaster management (DDM), which was asked to prepare a report on Bhutan’s state of preparedness to an earthquake after the April 25 quake rocked Nepal, was also completed.

“We’re prepared up to a certain level,” lyonpo Damcho Dorji said, adding that, should an earthquake strike Bhutan, the country could immediately mobilise the relief team.  “Because of its smallness we can do things much faster and, in terms of response, we’re ready.”

The risk is high in towns, he said, given the concentration of people and structures. “But since most structures are much better and quite new, I’m expecting that a lot of these will hold against an earthquake of at least 7 magnitude.”

What Bhutan hasn’t been able to do, lyonpo said, was to go into the minute details that other developed countries have, such as reaching every district and village, and dedicating places where people could be brought to safety.

“We need to have the necessary infrastructure, equipment and also the expertise,” he said. “We don’t have trained people to deal with different types of disasters.”

Lyonpo said he was most worried about the cultural monuments, not because they were historical heritage sites but because they were also a living culture.

The ministry is also confronted with a challenge to preserve these structures and make them earthquake resilient. “If you try to preserve these old buildings, they won’t be able to withstand strong earthquakes.”

According to the DDM report, there were 19 seismic events that have affected Bhutan since 1897.  An earthquake with a magnitude of 8.7 in the Shillong plateau, India, 118 years ago, had destroyed Punakha and Lingzhi dzongs and damaged Wangdue, Trongsa, Jakar and Tashichhodzong.

The Cabinet has now established a high-level multi-sectorial earthquake preparedness committee comprising 15 members and chaired by the home minister. “What’s most important is to set up the national emergency operation centre,” lyonpo said.

Next month, the DDM will move out of its hazard prone temporary office into a two-storied government quarter above JICA office.

According to the home minister, agencies such as the DDM, health ministry, police and education have been doing things on their own in terms of earthquake preparedness. “There was no coordination, but now this committee will coordinate to have these preparedness measures in place,” he said.

Senior engineering geologist at the seismology division with the department of geology and mines, Jamyang Chophel, said Bhutan should prioritise scientific studies on earthquake related topics over studying how to handle the kind of earthquakes that struck Nepal.

“Having a competent committee for earthquake disaster is the most important and, if our policy makers are serious, it shouldn’t take more than two to three years for Bhutan to have in place its preparedness measures.”

Budget 

Besides being reminded of being vulnerable to earthquakes, the country is also strapped for funds.

“We know the government has limited budget, but now we have to allocate budget, despite all the constraints,” lyonpo Damcho Dorji said.  For assistance, he said he has approached the UNDP, the Swiss Red Cross and the Indian embassy.

According to the DDM report, the last two earthquakes of 2009 and 2011 together caused damage worth more than Nu 3,600M (million).

The budget proposal put to the Cabinet is in three phases, lyonpo said.  For the first phase, a budget for Nu 70M has been proposed.

“Unless we prioritise, it’s difficult to get this budget but more important than that is to get technical expertise,” he said. “We’ll have to manage some budget from the government to get the national emergency centre established at the national level, and then set up dzongkhag disaster management centre, so that we at least have all the districts covered.”

DDM officials had earlier said that establishing a centre with the capacity to cover the whole country requires Nu 400M.

One of the immediate needs according to the report is also the procurement of urban search & rescue (USAR) equipment.  The 20 USAR equipment listed by the DDM are estimated to cost Nu 132.2 million

High-risk zone

While work has begun to set up seismic stations in the country, Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said that, based on the available information, Bhutan was also in a very high-risk zone. “Unlike Nepal, where the risk goes right through the country, just like it’s shaped, in Bhutan, the risk runs from north to south and not east to west like Nepal,” he said.  “The red line goes through some parts of eastern Bhutan.”

Lyonpo said that the reason why there has not been much risk is because Bhutan is not on that horizontal fault line. “But I’m not saying we’re safe. I’m saying that, if we go by their report, we can still expect quakes but it doesn’t cover as much area as Nepal.”

The earthquake of May 12 (M7.3) in Nepal, (Dr) Karma Kuenza, who has done his PhD in Earthquake Engineering, said, seemed to have occurred 140 km east of the earthquake of April 25 (M7.8)

“This could be aftershock, meaning the earlier earthquake must have triggered the present one,” he said. “Usually one movement disturbs the other weak zones along the fault and aftershock can last over months and sometimes even years.”

He said, usually after a large earthquake, the strain energy is released and thus, it should take few hundred years before another large earthquake occurs.

“However, geologic studies immediately after the earthquake of April 25 revealed that it had only broken the eastern end of the central gap,” he said. “That means most of the strain built up (due to plate movement of about 5 cm per year) in the rocks over the years hadn’t all been released, and most of the central gap remained still intact. In essence, it seems that Nepal is not relieved from the predicted “great earthquake” of magnitude M8.0 or above.”

While it was difficult to say exactly when, he said that big earthquakes were inevitable in this part of the world.

“However, the first biggest barrier to earthquake preparation in Bhutan seems to be psychological,” he said. “We still find a lot of people, who think of earthquakes as an act of God, rather than as a natural phenomenon that can be mitigated.”

While earthquakes will keep on occurring, he said, the degree of its damage to lives depends on preparedness.  “Often we don’t take the risk of earthquake seriously enough. Our reactions towards earthquake preparedness are at best reactive.”

It’s such beliefs that make creating awareness a challenging task in Bhutan, lyonpo Damcho Dorji added. “You have to explain everything and then people say, if nobody can do anything during an earthquake, then why attend all these awareness programs?” he said. “But that shouldn’t deter us from doing what we have to do, because it keeps people alert and, in a split of a second, you can make a life and death decision.”

 

By Sonam Pelden 

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