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Is Bhutan ready for the big one?

Not by a long shot, given the tardiness with which the infrastructure of the dept. concerned is being set up

Disaster: How prepared is Bhutan? 

This is the question on the minds of many Bhutanese since they felt the tremors of the earthquake that rocked Nepal on April 25.

For a country that sits on a seismically active zone on the Himalayan main central thrust, experts have long predicted that Bhutan was long overdue for a major quake beyond a magnitude of  8. “No we’re not prepared,” says the director of the disaster management department, Chhador Wangdi.

As a coordination body, the department has conducted mock drills and simulation exercises to educate people on safety during earthquakes.

“But what’s most important at the core of disaster management is to establish a national emergency operation centre for effective communication and response,” he said.

The centre is a critical component of the national disaster management system.

While three buildings above the Bhutan Broadcasting Service office in Chubachu, Thimphu were identified for the centre, Chhador Wangdi said the structures have now been “hijacked”, and that the department was not likely to get the structures. The department needs at least Nu 75M for the first phase to establish a centre with the capacity to cover the whole country.

Red tape

But the establishment of a national emergency operation isn’t the only activity that’s progressing at a snail’s pace. Work to set up six seismic stations in Thimphu, Samtse, Samdrupjongkhar, Gelephu, Trashigang and Bumthang has begun, but construction of a seismic room has started only in Samdrupjongkhar last month.

Senior engineering geologist at the seismology division with the Department of Geology and Mines, Jamyang Chophel, said they were yet to get the land registration certificate for Thimphu and Gelephu.

Since September last year, he said, he had been running from pillar to post to get the land registered for the construction of these structures.  For Thimphu, he said, he was told that the land identified above Changangkha lhakhang was with the thromde. “After the survey and everything was completed, they said the land was under the dzongkhag,” he said.

The land, which occupies less than a decimal, was found to be 35m away from the thromde boundary, and the same paperwork had to be done with the dzongkhag. “It’s our system; that’s how it works and all dzongkhags have their own set of rules,” he said.

Director Chhador Wangdi said they were sorting out this issue with the National Land Commission because, according to the commission, a minimum of 10 decimal of land was required to register. “But we don’t even need a decimal and, since it’s a government structure, the issue is being settled,” he said. “What we need, however, is to do a thorough mapping of how vulnerable we are to earthquakes.”

Jamyang Chophel said all instruments, such as seismometers, has already been procured, and will be installed by experts, once the World Bank supported seismic stations is built.

“To locate earthquakes, we need at least three stations,” he said.  Once established, these stations will provide real time data on the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes in the country.

Jamyang Chophel, who is also the officiating chief seismologist and the only person in the division today, said there was lot of work for Bhutan to do. “We don’t have an earthquake hazard map, because we don’t have records or history of earthquakes in the country,” he said. A record on the history of earthquake would help calculate the return period of a quake, he said.

 

Seismic hazard risk map inaccurate

The seismic hazard risk map, 2009, that’s being shared on social media, he said, wasn’t accurate and was informing people wrongly, because the map was based on India’s rock type and not Bhutan’s, which is much younger. “Yes, we sit on a high active zone, but we need to first do a seismic zonation to find the soil and rock types, and conduct a scientific study,” he said. “We need to find the active faults in Bhutan.”

Attempts to bring in experts, he said, went futile, when the immigration department denied them visas. “Once a zonation is done, we can then frame our own building codes,” he said.

In 2012, an associate professor of Gunma University, Japan, Dr Yasuhiro Kumahara, had said in an article on GLOF research and mitigation project, which he contributed to Kuensel, that Bhutan needed an active fault map to reduce seismic disaster.

He had said that a mega earthquake of the same size as the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake could occur in Bhutan because the tectonic condition of Bhutan is similar to that of the northern Japan.

Bhutan is located at a Himalayan range, which was formed as a result of the head-on collision between the Indian and Eurasia plates.  The precise timing of an earthquake cannot be predicted, but he said it was possible to know where the mega earthquake tends to occur.

“Four mega earthquakes occurred during the last 100 years along the Himalayan front of Nepal and India,” he had said. “It has been by pure chance that Bhutan has not suffered seismic disaster by the mega earthquakes.”

According to the National Disaster Risk Management Framework, records suggest that while these four great earthquakes of magnitude exceeding 8 on the richter scale occurred during 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950, another 10 earthquakes exceeding magnitude 7.5 have occurred in the Himalayan belt during the past 100 years.

It states that in recent years, Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing have witnessed the effects of three significant earthquakes.

The earthquake of 1980 (6.1 on richter scale), with its epicenter in Sikkim (India), caused several cracks in buildings in Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Trashigang. The earthquakes of 1988 (6.6 on richter scale) and 2003 (5.5 on richter scale) with epicentres in the Indo-Nepal border and Bhutan respectively, also caused similar damages to human settlements, institutional buildings and highways.

While the disaster management department has also framed good construction practices for rural homes after the 2009 earthquake, and trained masons and carpenters to build safe homes, seismologists are concerned that the urban homes, especially in Thimphu, could collapse if an earthquake of magnitude 8 struck Bhutan.

However, officials with the Engineering Adaption and Risk Reduction Division at the works and human settlement ministry said that structures constructed after the early 90s have been designed and approved to be ‘quake resilience.’ “This means, the structures will not collapse at once and give occupants the time to run for safety,” an engineer said.

Unlike Bhutan, Nepal has its own seismic stations and information in place, but since earthquakes cannot be prevented, Jamyang Chhophel said the quake was a reminder to Bhutan to intensify its preparation. “We’re like Nepal and we’re not prepared,” he said.

By Sonam Pelden

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One comment

  1. Thank you to Chhador Wangdi to this very documented article ; it is the first time I can read a so precise text about Quake .
    I quote him “To locate earthquakes we need at least three stations . Once establish , theses stations will provide real time data on the frequency and magnitude of earthquake in the country” . But it seems that bureaucratic problems are holding things up :1/ Structures proposed have been hijacked from Chubachu 2. / The departement of disaster need at least NU 75M 3/ A problem of land surface is delaying the establishing of seismic rooms .
    During that time earth plates are running underneath . The general interest of the population is higher than tiny bureaucratic problems.
    Does the GVT can accelerate the processus of establishing seismic station !!!

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