Preparing for and dealing with future floods after the Lhuentse tragedy

Flash floods is one of the most common disasters in Bhutan, which generally occur due to intense rainfall and failure of natural dams built up by debris.

The majority of the country’s agricultural land and infrastructure is located along drainage basins that are highly vulnerable to flooding, particularly riverine flooding caused by heavy monsoon rains and glacial melt.

A recent flood disaster claimed 23 lives in Lhuentse with just 8 bodies found so far. Although the search for the 15 missing is still ongoing, however, the cloudy weather is impeding the rescue operation.

The cause of the flash flood is being investigated. However, there are some probable causes that might have led to the tragic event, such as heavy rainfall triggering the flood, as there were no natural lakes above the stream site. Some people speculate that a cloud burst could have dumped a large volume of water in the small area causing the flash flood. A natural dam could have been formed upstream to worsen the problem.

The Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) ‘s Managing Director said that with the help of drones, they are still searching for the bodies of the victims, but the cloudy weather is not helping in the search.

Support is being rendered to the family members of the deceased. Although the hydro project located on the Yungichhu river is not impacted, however, the works have been halted. 

Earlier, a tragic incident occurred on 25 July 2019 in Lhuentse, when heavy rainfall flooded the Lingbi river and claimed the lives of a 49-year-old mother and a 22-year-old daughter.

A flash flood in Jasabi of Lhuentse killed five people on 30 September 2022.

Also, just two weeks ago on 13 July, devastating flashflood wreaked havoc in Gelephu and Phuentsholing.

The National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) said that they will only be able to determine if there is any impending flood of relevance. Depending on it, NCHM disseminates the related information to other agencies, and they do the necessary follow up. They generate flood hazard map of major river valleys which helps in evacuations. For now, they have only two flood detectors in place.

According to NCHM, “The department has installed automatic Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) Early Warning System in Punakha-Wangdue Valley and Chamkhar Chu. This will monitor to detect floods-causing phenomena such as rainfall, rise in water level and it will also help in dissemination of GLOF information and warning to the people in the flood-prone areas.”

The Department of Human Settlement under the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport prepares Flood Management Plan (FMP) for critical flood prone areas affecting human settlement. A detailed FMP entails site assessment and development of hydrological and hydraulic modelling to prepare Flood Hazard and Risk Maps followed by design of sustainable and climate resilient flood adaptation measures.

The ministry collaborates with NCHM for hydrometer data and works on various projects with them. The flood hazard maps prepared by the ministry are shared with DLGDM (Department of Local Government and Disaster Management) for further preparedness and awareness programs.

The southern region of Bhutan is the most vulnerable to rainfall induced flooding mainly because the region experiences more rainfall than the rest of the country. And the risk is further increased because of its fragile geology that is weakened by intense rainfall.

The department said the technical studies for the Gelephu Flood Protection Project are complete which was funded by the Netherlands, and the follow up DRIVE project which implements the study and was funded (50 percent) by the Government of Netherlands will be initiated by the beginning of 2024.

An example of a successful flood adaptation measure can be seen along the right bank of Sunkosh river in Lhamoizingkha. The sustainable flood adaptation measure of gabion embankment with gabion spurs was designed and monitored by the ministry, and implemented by Lhamoizingkha Dungkhag in 2016-17 during the 11th FYP. The measure has successfully managed to reduce the flooding vulnerability of the nearby settlements for the past 6 years.

In-house capacity building programs, attending online seminars and technical training funded through projects are some of the ways to stay updated on the latest advancements and best practices in flood management.

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