Photo: Kezang Dechen

Effective communication channels within country to respond to disasters

Identifying the strong need for better management, the three days workshop on ‘Emergency Preparedness Simulation’ was held with the United Nations and the Royal Government of Bhutan. A scenario of an earthquake of magnitude 8 was taken up in the simulation exercise to test the existing emergency response system.

The tectonic plates are shifting at 16mm per year. In 100 years it moves 1.6m that indicates it has moved more than 4m since the last major earthquake in 1714 that wreaked havoc according to some monastic scriptures.

Although there are response and contingency plans recommended from various stakeholders in emergency management in place, it was however found that the issues on effective communication channels between stakeholders needs to be worked on.

The   objectives were to clarify the roles of the stake holders, test the communication and co-ordination system between the UN and RGOB and also within the RGOB itself, to map the coordination and decision making processes and to provide recommendations for the existing defense mechanism in the country.

The senior program officer of Department of Disaster Management (DDM), Sonam Deki said “It was a good opportunity for us not only to see how we can coordinate and communicate with the UN system but also within our own national system. It was also the first national exercise that tried to test the national level coordination structure”.

However, the communication channels between the stakeholders at national level were found deficient. “I think some of the sectors were not really aware of some of the roles and responsibilities”.  She added this could be due to lack of awareness and training.

Other shortcomings were identified in terms of preparedness. “With the simulation exercise we identified some of the priority actions that we would need to strengthen for disaster response in the country”. Procedures for acquiring international help were also discussed.

The National Response Coordination Committee (NRCC) has 8 desks headed by the prime minister such as SAR (Search and Rescue) desk, medical service desk, planning desk, logistics desk, information communication and transportation desk, immediate restoration of essential public services desk, Finance desk and international assistance desk. While the UN includes clusters, that are a group of humanitarian organizations such as water, health and logistics. To see how the desks work with the clusters to provide support in a national emergency was their main objective.

The plans that have been identified would take around two weeks to be finalized. It will contain regulatory plans for the sectors and their standard operating procedures during a disaster.

The Senior Engineering Geologist of Seismology and Geophysics Division, Jamyang Chophel said, “Earthquake has no boundary so if the earthquake happens somewhere nearing our borders, Bhutan is affected as well to some damage”

He said certain formulas can be used to prepare ourselves, such as a calculating a retain period where it has been researched about in foreign countries like Japan and China. This is by studying the prior events and calculating the gaps to form a pattern.

He formed a group called Bhutan National Earthquake Monitory Network (NEAMN) to better understand earthquake in the Bhutanese context and prepare for contingency planning realistically.

One of the ways of preparing is through enhancement of earthquake source monitoring which will show the details of the earthquake such as the location, date and time, magnitude etcetera of an earthquake nearby.

“We must learn a lesson from our neighboring countries for example the 2015 Nepal earthquake and have a better contingency plan for our country. Whenever we plan a contingency plan for district level or national level, an important thing to keep in mind is the maximum level magnitude of earthquake that could hit Bhutan in the future.”

On the topic of ducking under the table during an earthquake, Jamyang Chophel says, while it is feasible in developed countries like Japan as they have stronger, more earthquake resilient structures and quality tables, in his opinion, from the technical prospective not realistic in Bhutan. “Here, there are dangers of the structure to break down including the tables. So before taking up such a drill, there should be mock drills and research done first to see if it is adaptable in Bhutan”. He instead suggests to duck under any standing structures such as doors or pillars as during past earthquakes it is always those that are the strongest and remain unbroken.

“The information of Bhutan Himalayas is very poor even now, studies on earthquakes are still very young and fresh in Bhutan, source monitoring and intensity monitoring machineries are newly established and Bhutan is one of the last countries to have such earthquake monitoring networks installed”.

From the United Nations side, there is a UN Inter-Agency Contingency Plan (IACP) for Bhutan. The plan was developed as the result of intensive consultation with stakeholders from across Bhutan, in Paro, August 2017.

The contingency plan is put together by the UN Country Team in coordination with Government and to provide support to Government capacity in country. The contingency plan emphasizes the linkages that should be established between preparedness, response, mitigation and early recovery actions.

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