Understanding the 5th April quake and its implications for the ‘Big One’

On the evening of 5th April 2021 a magnitude 5.1 earthquake on the Bhutan-Sikkim border region that was also felt in Nepal, Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh brought back the focus on the ‘big one’ due for this region.

According to experts thought it is difficult to predict seismic events, scientifically Bhutan and the wider region can have big events. The stress that has been building up over the last 300 years is yet to be released.

However, the earthquake which took place on 5th April is not capable of releasing the huge stress building up for three centuries.

While the earthquake which caused substantive damage in Bhutan was in 2009 in eastern Bhutan, but historically, the biggest earthquake that struck Bhutan was about 300 years ago, in 1714. 

Dr Dowchu Drukpa, Chief Seismologist at Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) said that it will be difficult to predict the happening of major earthquake after a seismic event has taken place. As far as an earthquake event is concern, they do not believe in prediction in seismology.

However, he said, “We do monitor seismic activities happening in the country and in the regions at large. We have stations installed all over the country. We look at seismic events; we do location of the events and do analysis in terms of magnitude and other scientific analysis.”

The recent earthquake happened in a very highly intense seismic region, he said, adding that they monitored in early 2000’s and they have established a temporary seismic arrow from 2014 to 2016 in collaboration with Swiss Federal Institution of Technology.  

During those times they observed very linear seismic pattern in these areas, he added. Earlier it was termed as Golpara lineament but they have re-termed it as Dhubri-Chungthang lineament and in here they don’t expect massive earthquake with 7 or greater magnitude.

“Though Dhubri-Chungthang lineament is very active seismically, we don’t expect to see a big magnitude as it is not capable of producing such magnitude,” he said.

“However, what is happening in that lineament is different from what is happening in the Himalayan region where we should expect thrust faulting. And the thrust fault is capable of capable of producing large seismic events,” he said.

Emphasizing on challenges, he said that communication is one big challenge because the internet connectivity is not reliable and there is no smooth flow of data from the remote areas as the network in rural areas sometimes break down.

He said, “This is the case even in most of the developed and well established system. So, we must expect this kind of challenges and hopefully with more stable communication system in going forward, we are hoping to resolve the issue. However, I think communication will still be a challenge.”

They have installed intensity meter in all the 20 Dzongkhags and 25 gewogs funded by JICA. Even if some of the sessions are down, it should be fine to monitor if 70 to 80 percent of the meter remains up. However, they target to have 100 percent data flow, he said.

With the studies they have conducted so far, it is quite risky where everyone should be vigilant but, people should not panic.

Meanwhile, Dy. Chief Program Officer Sonam Deki, Department of Disaster Management (DDM) shared that being a national coordinating agency they focus on advocacy for all the hazards.

“We have disaster management plans at Dzongkhag level and for all the Thromdes. We have adopted instant command system in 2017 through which they conduct earthquake simulation activities. As of today, we have conducted simulation activities in 13 Dzongkhags. In a year we can cover only 4 to 5 Dzongkhags,” she added.

They have trained search and rescue team at a Dzongkhag level and they are provided with basic search and rescue equipment through which they respond.

However, she said that the urban search and rescue capacity is limited as the equipment are very expensive. Coming to advocacy on earthquake, education ministry looks after it in 512 schools. They have disaster plans in place and teams in different fields.

She said, “Schools initiate mock drills and educate students on earthquake. At a Dzongkhag level, the teams in respective Dzongkhags activate the plans whenever there is any disaster. They respond to the disaster at their capacity, however, if they fail to do so they can get in touch at the national level and accordingly assistance is provided.”

There is lack of awareness among the people whereby they do not cooperate during the time of mock drill/ simulation activities, she said, adding that they could give awareness only to vulnerable communities due to lack of budget.

National Disaster Management Authority is chaired by the Prime Minister and the highest decision making body. Dzongkhag disaster management committees are decentralized, however they lack capacity.

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