Bhutan is prone to many natural hazards and disasters due to its location in the Himalayan range. The entire country faces a high level of earthquake risk in addition to threats from fragile geologic conditions, steep terrain, and climatic effects with great elevation difference.
The 2009 eastern Bhutan earthquake followed by the 2011 Sikkim earthquake caused huge damage to infrastructure. The 1897 M8.7 earthquake with epicenter in Shillong Plateau, India, damaged many Dzongs (historic fortresses now used for both civil administration and monastery) and houses across the country.
Thimphu, the capital, could be isolated after the next big earthquake, with downed critical roads, national airport, communications, power and water supply. Older buildings and rural homes are likely to suffer extensive damage since they are not designed to resist moderate to strong shaking.
In recent years, climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of weather events and flooding, which have greatly impacted Bhutan’s people and economy. Sixty-nine percent of Bhutan’s population derives its income from small-scale, subsistence rice farming, and this work has relied on traditional rainfall patterns that are now disrupted. Ninety percent of Bhutan’s imports arrive on the national highway connecting India. The road is continually subject to disruptive landslides triggered by monsoon rains (June to September), a problem for safety as well as the movement of people and goods. Flash floods also occur during monsoon season.
The 2011, 2013, and 2014 windstorms affected the majority of Bhutan, especially people with agricultural livelihoods. Construction practices make roofs of traditional Bhutanese houses and rural homes prone to damage. The Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in 1994 caused massive damages in valleys downstream and claimed 21 lives. A study conducted by the Department of Geology and Mines in collaboration with ICIMOD identified 2,674 glacial lakes in Bhutan, and 17 were found potentially dangerous as per the 2019 report of National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology. Cyclone Aila in 2009 precipitated flooding nationwide, took 12 lives, and caused substantial economic losses.
The Royal Government of Bhutan is committed to improving resilience and has integrated disaster risk reduction (DRR) as one of the key result areas priority in the nation’s 12th Five Year Development Plan. Bhutan’s goal is to enhance DRR and manage disaster in a holistic approach. Its priorities for action, which align with the Sendai Framework for DRR 2015-2030, are: i) Improving the understanding of disaster risks ii) Strengthening risk governance systems iii) Investing in DRR for resilience, and iv) Strengthening disaster management capabilities.
GeoHazards International in Bhutan: Our local staff members have been working closely with stakeholders and agencies to support their efforts since 2011. Our Bhutan office is in Thimphu, the capital.