How prepared is the nation for an earthquake

The seven-year long findings on Bhutan’s geodynamics makes it pronounced that a major earthquake of magnitude 8.5 or higher is due to hit the country in the future though the time period is not known. In the wake of such a revelation, the question remains as to the nation’s preparedness – should a major earthquake strike the Bhutanese infrastructure by surprise.

The Department of Disaster Management (DDM) said that according to the assessment done after the 2009 and 2011 earthquakes, it has been found that Bhutanese infrastructure lacked safe construction practices and opted for cost-saving constructions that compromised the resilience of the infrastructure to natural disasters.

The officials from DDM pointed out that it would be wise for the people to be mentally and structurally prepared beforehand to deal with disasters instead of only panicking only in the wake of the disaster, and said that it’s time people are on their toes to face such disasters and have family disaster measures in place like, planning their food stocks. “It is the mindset of the general public that we need to change. People act and regret only after the disaster strikes, and forget too soon,” said a program officer from the DDM.

Disaster Management and Contingency plan

The Chief Program Officer, Department of Disaster Management, Pema Singye, said that various initiatives are rolled out to create public awareness on safety measures during natural disasters.

The department is actively involved in initiating Disaster Management and Contingency Plans in 15 dzongkhags and 2 thromdes, with the rest five dzongkhags expected to be complete by the end of 2019.

Disaster Management and Contingency Plan is an overarching plan during time of disasters and spells out standard procedures of response which functions as an action oriented plan.

Although the ministries have their own sector plans for disaster risk reduction and contingency plans, a training by the Department of Disaster Management is underway, at the moment, to train the trainers from various agencies, corporations and handful of private sectors participating to develop their own disaster management plan.

Frequent simulation exercises are also being carried out with the purpose to inform and educate the general public, as well as to test preparedness levels of the community and the responding agencies, and also to make sure that the plans are practicable and implement similar action plans accordingly during times of such disasters.

The department has provided search and rescue operation training to all the dzongkhags, thromdes and dungkhags. And it is also in the process of establishing mobile storage units for temporary shelter and storage of food and relief materials.

Incident Command System (ICS)

Incident Command System is a coordinated response mechanism that enables different organizations to come together and respond to a common disaster by ensuring that there is no duplication of efforts.

“Should a major disaster strike a place, there is a natural disaster coordination committee, chaired by the Prime Minister who would be national incident commander. We have various other desks like, search and operations desks, planning desk, finance desk, logistics desk, international assistant desk, and communication desk which will be headed by the relevant secretaries from the ministries,” said Pema Singye.

ICS ensures that there are teams identified to respond to the natural disasters with roles and responsibilities clearly spelt out to committees in the dzongkhags. ICS response mechanism has been adopted by all the dzongkhags to ensure coordinated response in times of disaster.

Communication Response

For efficient and coordinated communication in times of natural disasters, as an alternative communication, the department has collaborated with the Disaster Communication Helpline Unit to put in place digital repertoire system for radio communication.

“At the moment, we have purchased 10 such digital sets that will provide basic coverage of the country. We have analogue walkie-talkie sets and satellite sets being distributed around the country as well, and we have also recommended the dzongkhag authorities to purchase more from their annual budget.”

The department has also instituted priority number, which can be accessed by the identified sector heads and few assigned responders, in times of disaster. “We have submitted their numbers to the telecommunication companies and in the event of major earthquake, if mobile towers do not collapse, the priority numbers will be activated, and only the priority numbers can have access to communication facilities, and for the general public, communication will be cut off to avoid jamming,” said the chief planning officer.

DDM has also requested the telecommunications company to atleast enable SMS facility, as that does not consume bandwidth.

Challenges

Apart from the obvious financial challenges, Tshering Wangchuk, program officer, DDM, said that one of the challenges faced by the department is coordination issue among the relevant agencies. “Planning depends on the technical resources, and since technical expertise lies with other agencies, it becomes challenging for us. We also do not have dedicated disaster management officer despite our repeated appeal to the higher authorities,” said Tshering Wangchuk, adding that the currently the local leaders are multitasking.

Although DDM has been broadcasting public service announcements through the national television and radios, public awareness on the disasters still remains as one of the challenges.

According to DDM, the general public does not understand that the department is mainly a coordinating agency working behind the scene. It is responsible for capacity development, preparatory measures, and budget allocation post disasters. DDM liaises with the identified agencies to coordinate in times of disaster.

The officials said that when a country like Japan was taken by complete surprise, despite all the preparatory measures, Bhutan with its limited resources and standard of infrastructures, will find it difficult to manage a major earthquake.

About Sonam Yangdon

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