How can Bhutan better prepare for earthquakes?

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Seismic station in Thimpu. Photo: Royal Government of Bhutan

Bhutan is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, thanks to its location in the seismically active Himalayas.
However, past seismic events across the country were not properly recorded. As recent research indicates the potential for earthquakes of magnitude 8 and over, how can Bhutan ready itself to weather future earthquake risks? 

Following the September 21, 2009 earthquake, which claimed 12 lives and caused an estimated loss of BTN 2501 million (or about $54 million), a post-disaster needs assessment led by the government with support from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the United Nations, made clear that the Kingdom needed to understand its exposure to seismic risks better.

To that end, Bhutan embarked on the $1.29 million Improving Resilience to Seismic Risk project funded by the Japan Policy and Human Resources Development (PHRD) Technical Assistance Program to Support Disaster Reduction and Recovery. This project started on May 23, 2013 and ended on July 31, 2017.

Retrofitting of Renewable Natural Resources center in Yoeseltsi, Samtse. Photo: Royal Government of Bhutan

Partners agreed to take a multi-departmental approach to align the activities of each technical agency to improve the country’s seismic resilience. This was vital for Bhutan to make the best of all available resources and technical capacity.

“This is the first time that I am attending a meeting amongst building engineers,” said Jamyang Chophel, Executive Engineering Geologist from the Department of Geology and Mines (DGM) at the consultative meeting in April 2017 among building engineers from all districts to discuss the challenges of integrating seismic resilient features in building constructions. Jamyang is the focal officer from the DGM for the project and was invited to provide an overview of Bhutan’s exposure to seismic hazards.

The DGM established a seismic central observatory system, installing and connecting six seismic stations and 20 intensity meters across the country. The Department of Engineering Services developed guidelines for retrofitting and structural vulnerability assessment of load-bearing structures and implemented it on four public buildings. The Department of Culture developed general guidelines for improved earthquake resilient construction techniques for rammed earth structures in Bhutan.

Conducting a vulnerability assessment. Photo: Royal Government of Bhutan

The Department of Disaster Management developed a Manual on Non-structural Mitigation Measures (NSM) for schools and piloted its implementation in two schools in the eastern part of the country. The user-friendly manual was tested in these two schools and later adopted in other schools in the central and western parts of the country. Schools have carried out the necessary mitigation measures for non-structural falling hazards based on the manual.

The Bhutan National Earthquake Monitoring Network has now expanded with additional seismic stations. This network will enhance the understanding of seismic activities and eventually help Bhutan develop seismic maps with in-country data.
The vulnerability assessment guidelines developed for non-engineered buildings by the Department of Engineering Services through this project can now be used to carry out the vulnerability assessment of the entire country. Similarly, the Department of Culture is carrying out further detailed field tests on rammed earth structures based on the findings from the project.
The RGoB has laid the groundwork to understand better the seismic risk that Bhutan faces, bringing together engineering communities to assess the vulnerability of the built environment and identify gaps to enhance its resilience. 
But much remains to be done to comprehend Bhutan’s exposure to seismic hazard, assessing the vulnerability of its built environment and better prepare its communities, if the big one happens.


Dechen Tshering

Disaster Risk Management Specialist

Peeyush Sekhsaria

Disaster Risk Management Specialist

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