Coping with disaster

white water rescue

To the rescue

On 27 July 1996, six boys from Begana went on a picnic to Tango. They lost their way in the thick forests, and despite the best efforts of the rescue teams – soldiers had literally combed the jungles – the students could not be found. 12 harrowing days later, police stumbled upon four of the boys in the forests above Punakha. The mountains had, by then, claimed the lives of two boys.

That shocking incident led Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, who was the education secretary at that time, to formalize, improve and expand scouting in Bhutan. He believed that the Begana students would not have had to go through hell had they had some basic survival skills. And he looked to the scouting movement to provide these and other important skills to our students.

Thirteen years later, on 27 July 2009, eight boys from Tshimasham went on a picnic by the Wangchu. Only one made it back home.

The scouting movement has spread to every corner of Bhutan. And, its contributions to the education of our children – by giving them leadership, life and survival skills, and by teaching them teamwork and discipline – can never be measured.

But we need to do more. A lot more.

Our last poll asking if we are prepared to cope with disaster is telling. 97% of the participants think that we are not prepared at all. 3% feel that we are sufficiently prepared. And not one person thinks that we are very well prepared to cope with disasters.

All of us know that we’ll have many more disasters. Storms, floods, mud slides, fires and earthquakes: we expect them all. So let’s prepare for them, as best as we can. There’s no doubt that our government is working to improve the disaster preparedness and disaster management levels in the kingdom. And that our government is already developing the ability to carry out rescue during disasters.

Rescue operations are complicated and dangerous. And they require expertise. All the more reason to prepare immediately, in earnest.

Consider whitewater rescue, the type that would be deployed in all our fast flowing rivers. Whitewater rescue teams would need training in safety, kayaking, swimming, ropework, rescue gear and first aid. They would also require a thorough understanding of our rivers and river systems.

The good news is that such trainings are conducted regularly in many parts of the world. The Red Cross Society may be a good place to start. The other good news is that many of us – teachers, monks, soldiers, guides, politicians, officials, businesswomen – would be willing to volunteer to learn and to apply rescue skills. We should use these advantages.

We expect our children to return home after a picnic. But, if and when an innocent outing turns dangerous, we need to know that we are prepared to render all possible help. That is our duty.

This week’s poll is about Dzongkha, our national language.

Another tragedy

There’s been another tragedy, this time from Wangduephodrang. A Class 11 student was swept away by the Punasthangchu. He and his friends had gone to the river to escape the mid-day heat.  Officials and volunteers have not yet been able to recover the young student’s body.

Total eclipse of the sun

Totally awesome

Totally awesome

I watched the solar eclipse, with my family and about a hundred other viewers, from Kuenselphodrang. By the time we got there, a little after 6 AM, it was already bright. But, the skies were overcast. And, as much as we hoped that the clouds would disappear over the eastern skies, they stood their ground, stubbornly.

I secretly accepted that we wouldn’t be able to see the eclipse; that we’d miss the moment the moon overpowers the sun; and that we wouldn’t be able to put to use the eclipse glasses that we got, miraculously, only the night before. Galek, my daughter, had learnt so much about the eclipse, and was so excited about the experience, that I couldn’t tell her that we would have to settle for just witnessing a bright early morning suddenly turn to night.

But then, nature’s magic took over, and in the heavens, right before our eyes, the sun emerged and literally smiled at us. The upward crescent cast long shadows. And, with its rays struggling to reach us, the lively morning quickly turned to an errie twilight.

As the magic continued, the moon covered the sun completely. Dogs howled in the sudden cool night and, in the distance, lights were switched on from houses and passing vehicles. Directly above us, a lone star presented itself.

And, there was more magic. As the sun and the moon combined to form a celestial diamond ring, Galek, aged 10, whispered: “I’m so happy that I’m old enough to remember this moment throughout my life.”

This week’s banner celebrates that breathtaking experience. The world will have to wait for more than 100 years to see a similar eclipse. And Bhutan? We’ll most probably have to wait a lot, lot longer. If you would–and this is especially for Zhidag and Romeo–like to see a few more photos of the eclipse, please visit the gallery.

Electric cars

Really powerful

Electric!

I drove an electric car last week. It was a Reva, an electric vehicle manufactured in India. The Department of Energy is currently testing the car on Bhutanese conditions.

The Reva is small. In fact, it’s not much bigger than a golf cart. So it can fit only two adults – that’s the driver and one passenger. The car actually has rear seats, where you can squeeze two little children. But if you do, you won’t be able to find space for even small luggage. Only this, and yet the car costs Nu 450,000 without taxes.

Theoretically, the Reva can run for 80 kilometers on a complete charge. So that means it is good only for local transport. A fully charged battery couldn’t take you to Paro and back. And you can forget about traveling to Punakha.

But there’s good news. The Reva emits zero emissions. So it would be good for Thimphu and our environment. It would also be very good for Bhutan’s image.

And there’s more good news. The Reva is cheap. Very cheap. It takes nine units of electricity to completely charge its battery. At Nu 1.40 per unit (that’s the price of electricity at the highest slab) that works out to Nu 12.60. A fully charged battery can take you for 80 km, so each km would cost Nu 0.1575 in electricity.

Now consider a small petrol car. That would give you about 15 km per liter. A liter today costs Nu 38.53. So a kilometer traveled would cost Nu 2.5687. Say you travel an average of 30 km per day. That’s 900 km a month. That would cost you Nu 2,311.83 on the petrol car. But only Nu 141.75 on the Reva!

That’s a huge difference. And the difference gets much bigger if you compare the Reva with larger internal combustion vehicles or if you are required to travel more each day. Plus, electric vehicles require much less maintenance because they are lighter, and they have fewer moving parts.

If the electric vehicle catches on, the difference at the national level would be immense. We’d be able to substitute expensive imported fuel with clean hydropower which we can generate in abundance. And this positive trade-off would do wonders for our economy. That’s where we, as a nation, would really gain.

So our government should aggressively encourage electric vehicles. To do so, it should test more electric cars, including bigger ones from other countries; subsidize import duties and taxes on them; use them as pool vehicles; and grant preferential parking, especially in town.

But the first step is obvious: our ministers should drive them. Only then would others follow.

Another bear cub is rescued

I’ve just learnt that another resident of Haa will be arriving in Taba soon. Pema Tshering, the Forest Ranger in Haa, has just informed me that they’ve rescued another bear cub. This cub was discovered in the Tshaphey Lower Secondary School premises with its back to the wall, defending itself from a pack of dogs. Officials of the Forestry Management Unit arrived literally on time to save the little bear who, I’m told, appears to be fine.

No one knows the whereabouts of the mother bear. So the cub will stay in the Wildlife Management and Rehabilitation Centre in Taba till she’s old enough to be reintroduced in the forest. Remember that the rehabilitation centre already has a resident bear cub, also from Haa. And that I visited that orphan last Sunday.

So I’m already looking forward to seeing the two cubs together. I’ll carry with me some milk and fruit.

Rehabilitating a cub

baby bear

baby bear

Earlier today we visited a bear cub. This little cub turned up in Jengkana school in Haa, a day after the recent flash floods. She was probably separated from her mother during the floods. Forestry officials quickly took the cub to the Wildlife Management and Rehabilitation Centre in Taba. She’ll stay there – with another resident, an orphaned leopard kitten – there till she’s old enough to be reintroduced in the pine forests of Haa.

Social forestry day

rich mountains

rich mountains

Today, 2nd June, is social forestry day. It is also the day when, 35 years ago, we celebrated the coronation of His Majesty the King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. What’s the connection? It’s quite straightforward: Our Fourth Druk Gyalpo, despite heavy odds, made our country one of the world’s most famous hotspots for biodiversity.

So I asked my daughter to help me select a picture to celebrate social forestry day. She chose this photograph, of the mountains opposite the Gasa Dzong. My photo does not do the forests justice but, believe me, the mountains are heavily forested.

Gasa tshachu

what we like

what we like

We’re in Punakha, back from Gasa. And other than the heart wrenching sight of the damaged tshachu, our hot springs, the quick trip to Gasa was most wonderful.

Gasa’s famous tshachu, a truly national heritage that, over many centuries, has provided hope to countless ailing patients and rest for weary travelers, is no more. On 26th May, the Mochu changed its course, towards the hot springs, and washed away all the ponds, three shops and a lot of the embankment. Local people and Dzongkhag officials have already tried to locate the springs. But so far, they have not been able to find them.

The good news, however, is that about a year after the last big flood, about fifty years ago, when the tshachu then had also been totally damaged, our people were able to locate the source of the hot springs and redevelop the site. The same must still be possible.

The good news is that, just above the guest houses, there’s a small pond, created by gurgling water. The water is only lukewarm. But dig a few metres and we already may have the possibility to develop a tshachu pond immediately.

And the good news is that tour operators and our government have already indicated their commitment to redevelop the Gasa tshachu. So the recent floods may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to develop the tshachu as a “model” destination for our other hot springs. This, in fact, is just what our tourism sector has been trying to do for a long time.

This was my first trip to Gasa. So I still haven’t enjoyed the hot springs there. But we got to do the next best thing: benefit from a hot stone bath in moenchu, medicinal mineral water.

 

To Gasa

Dasho Damcho, MP from Gasa and my only colleague in opposition, and I go to Gasa today. We’ll travel up the Mochu to assess the damage along the river, especially at the hot springs. What we’ve heard is that the historic springs have been completely washed away.

Tomorrow, to Haa

Not a pretty sight

Not a pretty sight

Today was surprisingly sunny. We were told to expect more rain. But the weather, at least in Thimphu, couldn’t have been better. It was perfect. I’ve heard that the Dratshang has conducted kurim, prayers, though out our country. Perhaps it was their intervention that turned the weather suddenly around and prevented further damage.

But our country has already suffered serious damage from the yesterday’s storm and flash floods. BBS has reported nine deaths so far. These include two students in Thimphu, one of whom was only seven; six farmers who were harvesting cordyceps in Bumthang; and one DANTAK road worker in Chukha.

Reports of damages to our nation’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, schools and private houses – continues to come in from almost every dzongkhag. One report I received was from Passang Tshering, a teacher in Bajothang: he’d blogged about the flood in Wangduephodrang.

And I’ve received disturbing reports from Haa that some houses have been completely swept away, and that many others are still partially submerged in water. That several bridges have been washed away. That roads are blocked. And that schools, sawmills and a workshop have sustained damages.

So I’m going to Haa tomorrow, to personally assess the scope of damages caused by yesterday’s calamity. And to help.