Sitting at the edge of disasters: understanding the impact of natural hazards in Bhutan

Bhutan is vulnerable to natural hazards and disasters. In recent years disasters related to floods, landslides, windstorms, forest fires, earthquakes, and lightning and hailstorms are increasing. These disasters are either water-related or climate-induced extreme weather events. The geo-hydrological and hydro-meteorological factors contribute to these events independently or in a complex combination.  Both of these factors, however, are aggravated by human activities such as land use changes and climate change.

Bhutan’s unique geography: fragile landscapes, steep slopes, young vegetation,vast elevational and climatic variability within small areas, and an active seismic location: accounts for the higher susceptibility to natural hazards.

Such geographic characteristics increase uncertainty of where and when a natural hazard might occur. What is more concerning is that this situation is worsened by human activities leading to land use change. We are increasingly moving to the edge of disasters.  A majority of landslides, for example, occurs along the roads; open cast areas become more vulnerable to landslides intensified by poorly applied mitigation measures, or lack of them.

Placing hazard in context

Mathematically, the risk of natural hazard is the product of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. A hazard is the threat or causes for a particular event. For instance, high rainfall leading to a river flood.  Exposure refers to people, assets or systems potentially exposed to an event; for instance, buildings exposed to a flood. Vulnerability is the capacity of people, assets or systems coping up for an event. The vulnerability to an event greatly depends on mitigation and adaptation capacity. The mitigation measures are taken before the events, i.e. preventing or minimizing damages to the exposed assets, people, or systems. Adaptation recovers the impact of damages caused to the exposures by an event, and reduces future risks. In many ways, putting the right kind of mitigation measures help prevent the adverse impact of natural disasters.

Climate change- natural hazard nexus

Bhutan submitted third national communication to UNFCCC in 2020, and the sixth IPCC Assessment report was published last August, 2021. The report of the third national communication shows an increasing emission from energy, industrial process and product use, and waste. Other forms of land use, including agriculture and forestry, show decrease in emission.

The first (1994) and second communication (2000) show emission of 1727.74 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gg CO2e ) and 37779.27 Gg CO2e , which is an increase of 120.75% and 0.92% compared to emission of 3814.09 Gg CO2e in the third communication report, respectively.

The third national communication shows that hydro-meteorological disasters, such as floods, landslides, windstorms, and hailstones, are becoming frequent in Bhutan. Similarly, the sixth IPCC Assessment Report shows that extreme precipitation, floods, fires, drought, and landslides are becoming more common around the planet.

Climate change impacts are different in different places and time, depending on how ready a society is to adapt to disasters. The negligence of putting measures to mitigation or adaptation will have a terrifying devastation from climate change. If we are still waiting for evidence to the warnings science gave, we are at the losing end; the evidence of climate change is ubiquitous and disparate. Climate change is no denial science.

Scientific evidences show that there will be untimely and erratic rainfall and unusually soaring temperatures. Such variability of weather patterns impact societies in both immediate and longer terms. Many of our farmers are dependent on rain-fed water for paddy transplantation, or for that matter, many farming activities. Untimely rainfall will alter cropping practices, expose agriculture to more pests and diseases before harvest, and consequently affect yield. Moreover, untimely rainfall with wind induces storms and destroys the crops.   Climate change impinges on food security.

The volume and thickness of snow covers and glaciers have plummeted across the world. The loss of snow cover and glaciers will affect groundwater recharge and decrease the volume of water in rivers and streams, resulting in water scarcity both for consumption and hydropower, one of the jewels of Bhutan’s economy.

Rising temperatures and incessant rainfall induce river flood, flash flood, landslide, earthquakes, and forest fires, beyond the controllable threshold. These are, in fact, the vignettes of global warming and climate change. If these vignettes do not give the picture of how we are affected by climate change, we are anticipating a greater catastrophe, perhaps, apocalypse.  So, our chances of survival from climate change depends on our own actions, the roles we play to exacerbate climate change and measures we put for mitigation and adaptation.

Urban environmental management in context of natural hazards

The characteristics of urbanization are more people living in limited urban spaces, expansion of slums, and higher energy and resource consumption. The congestion and clamor for a share of finite resources increase vulnerability and exposure of the cities and people to natural hazards and pandemics, which are exacerbated by climate change. This calls for a greater sensitivity to the latent risks in urban infrastructure design and planning to enhance resilience to natural hazards and events. Urban planning and design must prioritize adequate spaces and resilient structures, proper waste management including good sewage systems, aspects that are  unfortunately accorded peripheral importance in the current urban environmental management system.

The recurrence of urban floods — taking an annual form in Thimphu, as well as in other towns — suggests how poorly the concerns of urban environmental management are internalized in Bhutanese towns and cities. In Thimphu, urban floods cleans the city of its ill-managed toxic waste and sewage, ferries the load to the roads, footpaths, and ultimately to the river, Wangchu, one of the five major rivers of Bhutan that hosts variety of life forms including fish and water birds. 

But frequency of urban floods and landslides, for example, are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in grand schemes of things related to climate change. What we don’t see but can’t escape nonetheless are too many, and too serious to ignore. Hazards stir up a barrage of challenges. For example, an earthquake induces floods, landslides,and damages built structures, often resulting in astronomical cost of life and property.

Quantifying socio-economic impacts of natural hazards (the economics of natural hazards)

The 1994 LugyeTsho burst, a deadly glacial lake outburst flood event, claimed 20 precious lives, sustained substantial damage to the iconic Punakha dzong, and lay to waste a sizable swathe of scarce agricultural land, animal lives, and property. This event reinforced the importance of early warning systems for GLOF, which has been installed along the PunatsangchhuRiver.

The incidence of natural disasters has a significant economic toll; we lose forests, land, properties, culturally important places, and tourism hotspots. The fate of GasaTaschu is just one example. The costs will make an upward trend with more frequent environmental catastrophes. These losses are irreplaceable.

The loss goes beyond monetisation. Some losses simply are not quantifiable. The loss of a human life, damage to an iconic historical place, an agricultural land laid to waste, and animals killed cannot be strictly quantified. All of these — with the emotional investment in them — are priceless. The impact of natural hazards on public health is enormous as well. The psychological, physical, and mental impacts of these events dig deep into public health financing and introduce irreversible impacts on society. Some costs of natural hazards are not economic; they negatively impact GNH.

Natural hazard insurance and state’s support

Insurance schemes for the impact of natural hazards are no more options; it should be a state’s responsibility. The natural hazards are unpredictable. Poor people might find it illogical to insure against hazards they don’t foresee. Also, it could be expensive for farmers. So the insurance scheme for natural hazard impacts must be event-based and not on the principle of prior insurance. This requirement also forces the state to take that responsibility; for-profit insurance agencies might not accept such a measure. To put this in perspective, in 2020, five cattle were killed by lightning. Three cattle were not insured; so the farmers could not recover the loss. Farmers reared these cattle, sometimes the only source of family income. So, losing them to a natural disaster is losing a job for the farmers.

Similarly, a recent landslide along the Wangdue-Trongsa Highway sustained irreparable damage to a part of a paddy field with abundant paddy readying for harvest. The farmer lost this year’s hard work as well as future. This happened as a result of opening up for a road. Will the registered private land be replaced? When?

The support bequick without the usual quandary of “due process”. But, on the contrary, some essential public infrastructure such as bridges lost to natural hazards are not getting adequate attention. Negligence to address such issues will impactlives and livelihood of local people and increase vulnerability to natural disasters. Natural hazards have very real potential to reverse social progress including forcing people back to poverty traps.

What can we do?

Natural hazards are a major developmental challenge for Bhutan. They will only increase as a result of climate change. We must act. The first thing is an agile policy environment supported by research and data. Crisis mapping, identifying and monitoring hazard prone zones, and delineating social vulnerabilities are the gray areas that need to be addressed by research. Second, mainstreaming mitigation and adaptation measures is necessary. This can be done through structural and non-structural measures. The structural strategies include protective structures such as installing effective early warning systems, resilient buildings, walls, etc. Non-structural strategies include creating awareness, sensitizing, and educating people on safety measures, preparedness, and evacuation. Capacity-building at the communities for adaptation and mitigation of the hazards is an essential policy strategy.

Contributed by :

Chandra Man Rai (Mr.)

Adjunct Lecturer 

College of Natural Resources