First Month on the Job in Bhutan: Trial by Earthquake

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ImageAs the newly appointed (and first) World Bank Representative to Bhutan, my first month on the job has been challenging. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake with an epicenter in eastern Bhutan struck on September 21. There were 12 fatalities, including a mother breast-feeding her infant daughter by the hearth in their stone-walled kitchen. While there was fortunately relatively little loss of life, there was considerable damage to houses, schools, health clinics, temples, religious monuments and roads. In Bhutan's mountainous terrain, many affected villages are several hours walk away, so the provision of relief supplies and carrying out reconstruction is difficult.

In collaboration with the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bhutan, Claire Van der Vaeren, who took up her assignment in Bhutan in June, the World Bank fielded a team of disaster experts. Claire and I accompanied the team of six (four from the UN, two from the Bank) to the eastern districts ("dzongkhags") of Mongar and Tashigang. The drive from Thimphu -- Bhutan's capital city of 100,000 people -- to the affected villages in Mongar takes two days.

We stopped the first night in Bumthang Dzongkhag in central Bhutan where we put at the much loved Swiss Guest House -- a cozy wood hotel surrounded by apple trees, serving tasty fondue made from the locally emmenthal-like cheese, and with an expansive view across the Bumthang valley toward the ancient dzong (fortress), seat of government for the district. Tired from the nine-hour drive from Thimphu, the team sat in the dining room warmed by a wood-burning fire, had drinks and a meal, and discussed the work ahead to visit the villages most affected by the quake.

ImageThe Prime Minister (PM) of Bhutan, Jigme Y. Thinley, toured the affected area in the days immediately after the quake. Through the Home Ministry's Department of Disaster Management, the team was advised where the PM thought it should visit in order to get a good sense of the magnitude of the damage. Upon the PM's return from the east, he met with Bhutan's small number of development partners -- UN, WB, India, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands and Japan -- to give a briefing on what he had seen. An accompanying slide presentation showed the damage, and the PM spoke movingly of the emotional trauma people were suffering, particularly over the destruction of temples and religious monuments, such as 'chortens' -- stone monuments containing holy relics, traditionally found along footpaths to give the traveler good luck and blessings on the way.

From Bumthang, the team travelled to Mongar Dzongkhag where the ‘Dzongdag’ (governor) brought the local sector administrative heads to our hotel to brief us on the dzongkhag administration’s response to the earthquake. The following day we had our first visits to villages affected by the quake. Visits to the villages were sad. The extent of damage and disruption to people's lives was made starkly apparent as they took refuge in temporary shelters beside their homes with entire walls collapsed or rendered uninhabitable with long cracks. In fact, people whose homes completely fell down are better off than those that now have to dismantle their homes -- both dangerous and emotionally painful having to witness what appears to be an intact home coming down stone by stone.

Upon arrival in Tashigang the following night, the dynamic and energetic Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs, ‘Lyonpo’ (Minister) Minjur Dorji, who had set up an operations headquarters in Tashigang, hosted a dinner for our road-weary team. All the dzongdags of the six eastern dzongkhags were present. They were in Tashigang to attend a meeting called by the Minister to take stock of damage throughout the eastern part of the country. The dinner was also attended by representatives of His Majesty the King who are administering His Majesty's welfare fund, or system of royal 'kidu'.

ImageThe team spent the next two days visiting affected villages, speaking to local inhabitants and dzongkhag and gewog (village block) level government officials. In the village of Yangneer in Tashigang Dzongkhag, the primary school was completely leveled -- miraculously, with no loss of life. Children were sent home 30 minutes before the quake struck as a treat in advance of the next day's national holiday to celebrate "Blessed Rainy Day", otherwise the loss of life would have been much higher as all the classrooms were completely destroyed. In other schools where children were in class then the earthquake struck, they hid under their desks having learned what to do from a locally-made public service TV cartoon called "Naka" -- the Bhutanese word for 'earthquake'.

On the last night of the three days of field visits, the team was invited to the rural ancestral home of the Home Minister, Lyonpo Minjur, situated in the countryside about 30 minutes from Tashigang town. Showing traditional eastern Bhutan hospitality, Lyonpo offered hot 'arah' -- grain alcohol (aka moonshine), ceremonially served hot cooked in butter with fried egg at the bottom of the glass -- a bit like a hot 6-oz martini with a scrambled egg in it (clearly an acquired taste....). In the relaxed atmosphere of Lyonpo's sitting room, adorned with old and historic photos of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Kings of Bhutan, the team was able to engage the minister of some of the broader implications of the disaster, including the need to improved building codes and quality control for house construction, and the effectiveness of the current system of house insurance in rural areas.

ImageWe returned to our hotel in Tashigang – which itself had been slightly damaged in the earthquake, and we were worried about aftershocks. The following morning we would start the long journey back to Thimphu where the team would begin preparing its assessment report. The Royal Government was eager to have the report as a basis for launching donor appeals.

We were all tired from long days visiting damaged villages, and felt the emotional toll of having witnessed the destruction of the earthquake and people’s shattered lives. We were also touched and humbled by the kindness and hospitality shown to us during village visits from people who were experiencing some of the saddest days of their lives.

To be continued….

Please take a look at Bhutan Slideshow to see the beauty and extent of the damage in Bhutan. 

How you can help:

I'm still collecting funds for the disasters. Bhutan's national newspaper describes how vulnerable the affected families have been rendered. Some have children enrolled in school elsewhere in Bhutan and have to pay fees, others are left to wonder how they will feed and clothe themselves and their children over the coming winter. I was interviewed for the article having visited the town within 36 hours of the tragedy.

If you can give even a modest amount (e.g. like what you might spend on coffee in a week), it will mean very much to the people of Wamrong. Funds will be channeled through His Majesty's welfare office, with a specific request to assist those most affected by the Wamrong fire (I have received a detailed list of the affected families and the extent of their loss).

Bank Fund Credit Union Account #: 374080 S8
First letters of surname: LAP
Please indicate "Bhutan fire" in the transaction information field.

Donations can also be made for the Wamrong fire victims through the Bhutan Canada


Mark LaPrairie

Representative to Bhutan

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