Opening Remarks by the Hon'ble Secretary of Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs during the consultation workshop on the UN Inter-Agency Contingency Plan for Earthquakes

Aug 29, 2017

On behalf of the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, it gives me immense pleasure to extend a warm welcome to all the distinguished guests, delegates and participants to the United Nations Inter-Agency Earthquake Contingency Planning Workshop being organized by the United Nations in collaboration with the Department of Disaster Management.  

Ladies and Gentlemen: as we are well aware, Bhutan is highly prone to various natural calamities such as earthquakes, glacier lake outburst floods, landslides, flash floods and forest fires. However, it is a known fact that the earthquakes pose one of the most serious threats to Bhutan. Although a detailed and comprehensive seismic zonation of the country is unavailable at present, its proximity to the north-eastern parts of India, which lies in the “most active” seismic Zone IV and V, indicates that vast stretches of Bhutan fall either in Zone IV or V, thereby making it highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Further, studies carried out by the Department of Geology and Mines point to the fact that Bhutan has not experienced a major earthquake for over three hundred years and that a major earthquake is imminent in Bhutan.

Bhutan’s vulnerability to earthquakes is further exacerbated by unplanned urbanization, socio-economic factors, remote settlements, inadequate levels of awareness, construction practices, lack of risk transfer mechanisms, environmental degradation and low levels of preparedness and response capacities. These setbacks were amply demonstrated in the past seismic events such as the 21st September, 2009 Narang earthquake and  the 18th September, 2011 Sikkim earthquake, which together caused damages of more than 3,600 million Ngultrums.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, I am pleased to share that Bhutan has made remarkable progress in putting in place a framework to provide the foundation of building community resilience. The Disaster Management Act of Bhutan, adopted in 2013, reinforces the collective nature of disaster risk management and outlines a holistic approach to dealing with disasters.

On the practical side, the Department of Disaster Management and the technical sectors, with support from the international community, has implemented several activities and programs on the ground in accordance with the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Sendai Framework. Specifically, in terms of earthquake preparedness, various awareness programs have been carried out such as the Ap Naka Television Series and awareness posters and pamphlets. The Department of Disaster Management has also facilitated the preparartion of the Dzongkhag Disaster Management and Contingency plans through the Community Based Disaster Risk Management approach. The recent Executive Order issued by the Hon’ble Prime Minister to implement the Incident Command System in all the 20 Dzongkhags, 15 Dungkhags and 4 Thromdes is expected to further strengthen our response preparedness, including during disasters that could be trigerred byearthquakes. With the activation of Incident Command System, we are expecting to learn rapidly and put in place a mechanish that is robust.

In addition to these initiatives, disaster management plans have been instituted in all schools in the country thereby enhancing preparedness through mock drills that are conducted on a regular basis.  Schools have also been trained on adopting non-structural mitigation measures to minimize the impact of earthquakes.

Based on past experience and lessons learnt from the earthquakes of 2009 and 2011, the Disaster Management Department, through the support of the UNDP and in collaboration with the technical agencies such as the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Bhutan Standards Bureau and the Department of Culture has been able to train the Dzongkhag engineers, rural carpenters and masons of the six eastern and four western Dzongkhags in earthquake resilient construction techniques.

Complementing these efforts, the Department of Geology and Mines, under the Japan-World Bank funding, has installed seismic monitoring stations and intensity meters across the country for better understanding of seismic risk and to provide relevant information for better preparedness in the future. Within the project, the Department of Culture had also carried out typology study on rammed earth buildings and developed Guidelines for Improved Seismic Resilient Construction Techniques for Rammed Earth Structures in Bhutan. The project has also built the capacities of the Department of Engineering Services in retrofitting techniques for vulnerable buildings.

Although a lot has been achieved in the last few years, there continues to be challenges that Bhutan will face in the event of a major earthquake disaster. One of the biggest challenge would be that of coordination resulting from overall low level of preparedness, as well as inadequate planning and drills. The lack of Disaster Management and Contingency Plans in some Dzongkhags and Thromdes will pose serious response  and coordination challenges. Besides, the RGoB still needs to put in place SOPs and conduct simulation drills to test the coordination and response mechanisms instituted as per the Incident Command System.

Another major challenge would be sustaining reliable communications as terestial based communication infrastructure could be crippled during a disaster caused by an earthquake. For effective response coordination and communication, establishment of National Emergency Operation Centre and Dzongkhag Emergency Operation Centre with provisions for emergency communication assumes utmost importance. However, at present, we only have the physical structure for the National Emergency Operation Centre and none of the most basic equipment to operationalize the Emergency Centre have been installed so far.

The lack of a permanent National Search & Rescue Training Institute is another major challenge for the country, which is proving to be a major setback in providing continuous training for SAR teams. The lack of Urban SAR trained personnel and the associated critical equipment could acutely hinder SAR operations in the event of a major earthquake. These needs must be prioritized and addressed within the soonest possible times.

In terms of response of the international community, there is a need for clear procedures and agreed post-disaster assistance mechanisms to facilitate mobilization of support from the United Nations,  international humanitarian organizations, emergency organizations and other international agencies. Therefore, the proposal from the UN Country Team in Bhutan to develop a “UN Inter-Agency Earthquake Contingency Plan”  is a highly welcome initiative and a critical step towards enhancing Bhutan’s state of preparedness in effectively and efficiently dealing with post-earthquake triggered disasters.

The UN Inter-Agency Earthquake Contingency Plan would also enable the RGOB and the international community to smoothly coordinate emergency response, relief, recovery and reconstruction in the aftermath of a major earthquake.

I understand, that during the two day workshop, the participants will review the existing coordination structures, agree with the RGOB and key partners on a suitable coordination mechanism in preparation for earthquakes, including clarifying roles and responsibilities and standard operating procedures.  However, as mentioned earlier the RGoB has recently instituted the National Disaster Response Coordination Committee at the national level and the Incident Management Teams at the Dzongkhag level, whereby the concept of Incident Command System shall be followed for all response and coordination within the country. Thus, I would like to recommend that the UN Inter-Agency Earthquake Contingency Plan be aligned to complement the existing system that has been put in place.

I would also like to acknowledge that this exercise and the resultant Contingency Plan will not only be useful for response planning of the international community, in support of the RGoB, but would also contribute to the National Disaster Management and Contingency Plan which will be prepared in the near future.

I conclusion, I would like to underline that this workshop is being organized at an opportune time and that it would not have been possible without the interest and support of Mr. Gerald Daly, the UN Resident Coordinator in Bhutan. I wish to also express my deepest appreciation to the experts from the different UN Agencies and Durham University who are here to facilitate this workshop. Last but not the least, I would also like to thank all the distinguished participants of the RGoB, other international agencies and local CSOs, whose participation at this workshop, I believe, will bring about an outcome that will be of immense benefit to Bhutan.

 

Thank you and Tashi Delek!

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