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Earthquake Safety in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

GHI worked this year with Bhutanese engineers to develop a suite of tools for rapidly assessing the earthquake safety of schools and health care facilities known as Basic Health Units, which are common throughout Bhutan. California-based structural engineers Bill Holmes of Rutherford & Chekene and Mel Green of Melvyn Green and Associates, both widely recognized experts in seismic assessment and retrofit techniques, contributed significantly to the effort.

The new tools help engineers to quickly identify structural vulnerabilities, categorize buildings according to how much damage they are likely to experience from strong ground shaking, and determine whether or not seismic strengthening is needed. Assessment forms with questions and prompts guide engineers through the process of identifying seismic vulnerabilities, as well as vulnerability to other potential natural hazards, such as landslides or flooding.

Mel Green (left), Bill Holmes (center) and Karma Tenzin, an engineer for the Thimphu City Municipality, inspect buildings in and around Bhutan's capital.

Funding support for developing the tools— which are the first of their kind to be tailored to common construction practices in Bhutan— was provided by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, an international partnership that helps developing countries reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards.

The GHI team visited nearly five dozen schools and health care buildings throughout Bhutan, including buildings damaged in September 2011 by a M6.9 earthquake centered along the India-Nepal border region. In developing the tools, the project team also drew lessons from rapid assessment methodologies created for buildings in the United States.

Besides creating valuable new tools, the project will help to strengthen the country’s engineering community. GHI formed a core group of engineers from major Bhutanese government engineering agencies to help develop the assessment tools and provide peer review. In late October and early November, engineers from central government engineering agencies and from all 20 of Bhutan’s dzongkhags (districts) participated in a three-day training course—led by GHI team members and Bhutanese engineers—on using the assessment tools.

GHI is now working with the government of Bhutan to draft a plan for evaluating every primary and secondary school in the country. GHI and partner Bhutanese government agencies intend for the evaluations to form the basis for long-term programs to replace or retrofit the most vulnerable schools and Basic Health Units throughout the Himalayan nation.


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