From Japan to Bhutan: Improving the resilience of cultural heritage sites

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When it comes to their heritage buildings, both Bhutan and Japan have one common enemy: Fire. A view of Wangduephodrang Dzong in Bhutan which was destroyed by fire in 2012. Credit: Barbara Minguez Garcia 2018

About 2,749 miles, three countries, and a sea separate Kyoto, Japan, and Thimphu, Bhutan. The countries’ languages are different, and so are their histories.

But when it comes to their heritage buildings, both nations have one common enemy: Fire. 

And to help prevent fire hazards, there’s a lot Bhutan can learn from Japan’s experience.  

To that end, a Bhutanese delegation visited Tokyo and Kyoto last year to attend the Resilient Cultural Heritage and Tourism Technical Deep Dive to learn best practices on risk preparedness and mitigation, and apply them to Bhutan’s context.

Such knowledge is critical as Bhutan’s communities live in and around great heritage sites.

Vernacular architecture, lhakhangs (temples), and dzongs (fortresses), as well as nangtens (interior cultural heritage assets such as paintings, sculptures, and carvings),  are integral to daily life and particularly vulnerable to fire. In 1998, a fire destroyed the 7th-century Taktshang monastery, known as the Tiger’s Nest. More recently in 2012, the iconic 16th-century Wangduephodrang Dzong was burnt down.

However, fire is just one of the many hazards threatening Bhutan’s cultural heritage.  

The 2009 and 2011 earthquakes caused physical losses –mainly in lhakhangs and dzongs– estimated respectively to $13.5 million and nearly $7 million.  In 2014 and 2017, windstorms blew away several roofs of Chorten Nyingpo Lhakhang in Kabesa, Punakha, a Designated Heritage Site.

Presentation of the case of Wangdue Dzong onsite by Ms. Junko Mukai (Consultant) and Ms. Jigme Choden from DOC. Credit: BMG
Building on the progress from the visit to Japan, Bhutan invited Japanese and international experts from the Resilient Cultural Heritage Tourism Knowledge Program to develop a workshop to help improve the resilience of Bhutanese heritage sites.
Prof. Takeyuki Okubo from R-DMUCH in Kyoto, Japan, explains different fire-fighting systems to ensure proper preparedness measures in heritage areas. Credit: BMG

As highlighted during the workshop, the city of Kyoto provides excellent insights into how it integrated firefighting measures to conserve and maintain its wooden heritage sites .

For instance, the owners of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which was rebuilt multiple times, installed disaster-prevention devices to protect the buildings. These include a firefighting water system that can hold 500 tons of water, a fiber optic system to keep people away but also connected with a fire alarm, and a lightning prevention system.

Also, the local community plays an important role. In case of an emergency, trained neighbors and store owners are prepared to assist at the temple.  Drills are organized twice a year as well as regular training to use fire extinguishers.

To compensate for their services, the temple gives away rainwater collected through a water supply system to the community.

Community members also share their experiences and knowledge with the new generations.
Prof. Rohit Jigyas,  ICORP President, presents the example of the ancient Vietnamese city of Hoi An, a historic town affected by recurrent floods, fires, and storms, which made the municipality decide to develop a multi-hazard plan. Credit: BMG
Some of these good practices from Kyoto can apply in Bhutan.

As such, workshop participants started developing some principles and practices to improve the resilience of Bhutanese cultural heritage.

Specifically, they underscored the lack of awareness and information as a key challenge.

And overall, a critical lesson from Japan is to better integrate disaster risk management and cultural heritage conservation by promoting collaborations between agencies. 

This would help better understand and identify risks as well as each other’s roles in case of emergency and, ultimately, pave the way for the design and implementation of culturally-informed measures to reduce and manage risks.

In that sense, the workshop organized in Bhutan by the Division for Conservation of Heritage Sites ( DCHS - DoC) helped boost cooperation between the Department of Disaster Management ( DDM), the Fire Service Division from of the Royal Bhutan Police ( RBP), Dzongkhag Disaster Management Committee ( DDMC),   De-Suung (Guardians of Peace), and more.

Thanks to this learning experience, Bhutan is setting itself as an international reference for the protection of cultural heritage sites from disasters.
 Ugyen Chophel)
Workshop Participants. Credit: Ugyen Chophel
This initiative was supported by the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming DRM in Developing Countries through the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and its DRM Hub, Tokyo.


Barbara Minguez Garcia

Disaster Risk Management and Cultural Heritage Consultant

James P. Newman

Disaster Risk Management Specialist

Dechen Tshering

Disaster Risk Management Specialist

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