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Are Bhutan’s monsoon landslides becoming more deadly?

With increased precipitation and better reporting, Bhutan is recording more disasters. Experts say that the government needs to listen to science and rise to the challenge
Landslide on Bhutan’s national highway in August 2016 near the Phobjikha Valley (Image: Alamy)
Landslide on Bhutan’s national highway in August 2016 near the Phobjikha Valley (Image: Alamy)

On the morning of 16 June, Bhutan woke up to the tragic news that 10 people had been killed in a landslide at around 1am in the northern district of Gasa. This was the largest number of fatalities in a natural disaster in Bhutan this year. Landslides and flooding killed six people in 2019 and four in 2020.

The victims – seven women and three men – had been camped with 33 other people from Lungo village at a place called Ri-Drupzhi in Laya Gewog, Gasa district, since 17 May. They were collecting cordyceps, a valuable fungus believed to have medical properties, local community leader Lhakpa Tshering told The Third Pole. Five others were severely injured, and were airlifted to the National Referral Hospital in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu.

The rescue was only possible because one of the cordyceps collectors, Phurpa, who was camping some distance away, heard their cries and contacted the local authorities. At least six children in Lungo village have lost their mothers to this landslide, said Pema Wangchuk, a local leader. “The incident has left highlanders traumatised, and all cordyceps collectors have returned to the village,” he said.

This is not the only landslide to have occurred in Bhutan this year. Pema Singye, chief programme officer at the Department of Disaster Management, said that a 39-year-old woman and her infant son had died while sleeping in their home at Naudhokay village in Phuentsholing, southern Bhutan, when an avalanche of mud struck their home between 1am and 3am on 29 June.

What triggered the landslide?

The town of Laya in Gasa district received continuous and heavy rainfall for three days prior to the incident, said Pema, the local leader of Lungo community. Nearby streams and water sources were swollen from the rain.

Data from the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) showed that Gasa district recorded 30 millimetres of rainfall on 12 June and 23 mm on 14 June, the highest rainfall since 29 May, when the district recorded 49 mm of precipitation. Karma Tsering, senior remote sensing and geoinformation specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said that this amount of rainfall is very high for highland areas, and could have triggered the landslide.

“The continuous rainfall received prior to the day of the incident is the most likely cause of the landslide in Laya, because that was the only known disturbance occurring in the area during that particular time,” said Tsering.

Tsering said that other landslides might have occurred elsewhere in the highland area during this period, but might not have been reported due to the area’s low population. Landslides are common during high rainfall in highland areas, but the June incident became a tragedy because people were camped there, said Tsering.

Despite the NCHM’s warnings, the government has not been monitoring rainfall with as much detail as usual due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Other than excess rainfall, soil destabilised by construction activities in the area might have contributed to the problem, Tsering added.

A 2019 study looking at Chukha district in southwest Bhutan found that 53 mm of rainfall over a period of 24 hours was the threshold for landslides to occur. Precipitation above 88 mm over 10 days, and above 142 mm over 20 days, was found to be the threshold after which such disasters become much more likely. Despite this knowledge being available, and an increase in the number of intense rainfall events over the last few years, no comprehensive system of landslide warning has been created in Bhutan.

Bhutan is particularly threatened by floods and landslides. According to the Bhutan status report 2020 by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, more than 70% of the country’s settlements and most agricultural land and infrastructure are located along the country’s main river basins. Bhutan lies in a high rainfall zone, and the monsoon brings in 70% of the country’s annual precipitation between June and September, when landslides and flooding usually occur.

Despite an increase in disasters reported in local newspapers or on social media, Bhutan is still faced with a lack of data at the central level. The only audit of disaster management by the Royal Audit Authority (RAA) 2016 flagged a lack of centralised information on disasters across the country.

“While increased rainfall is linked with climate variability, our knowledge and understanding about whether climate change is impacting rainfall and related disasters is scant,” said ICIMOD’s Karma Tsering. “Temperature is found to be changing due to climate change but the link with the amount of rainfall received is still not clear,” he said.

The growing disaster count in recent years could also be due to increased reporting, as many parts of the country are now accessible, while in the past most incidents remained unreported due to their remote location. Tsering said that government agencies should investigate the links between rainfall, disasters, strengthened information-sharing and awareness-building.

How prepared is Bhutan?

Disseminating weather forecast advisories across social media, local media, television and government websites are important ways of alerting the public, said Singay Dorji, chief of the Weather and Climate Services Division with the NCHM, along with sharing information to relevant agencies. When there is imminent risk of weather events such as cyclones or storms, the division asks local media to broadcast warnings, he explained.

However, according to Tsering, publishing weather forecasts on social media is not enough. Like many other countries in the region and beyond, Bhutan has yet to get to grips with the increased risk of disasters brought on by climate change. Given the country’s small economy, lack of technical capacity and low education levels, Tsering said that Bhutan faces a particularly tough challenge.

However, Pema Singye at the Department of Disaster Management said that the government is preparing well. “All district agencies have respective plans in place and are well prepared to manage disasters,” he explained, adding that personnel had been trained in search and rescue activities and “all district administrations are well equipped”.

Since disasters remain unpredictable, Singye said, “it is important to have risk-reduction and preparedness plans in place and mock drills to test them”. Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction measures into development activities is also vital to prevent soil erosion and ensure the sustainable development of mountain communities, he added.