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ICT sector in Bhutan far from being resilient to disasters

This article is written by Younten Tshedup and is obtained from Kuensel Online (Bhutan).

More than 8,000 people lost their lives while 23,000 plus were injured and eight million affected in some way. Half a million private houses were totally destroyed. First the electricity power grid went down then the internet services were disrupted following network congestion. The scenario is not from a fictional movie but from the aftermath of last year’s earthquake of magnitude 7.8 that hit Nepal on April 25.

Bhutan has experienced its own share of earthquakes recently. The September 21, 2009 earthquake in Mongar measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale claimed 12 lives and 47 were injured. A total of 4,614 households were affected in 12 dzongkhags. The disaster left an estimated 7,290 people without adequate shelter. The earthquake caused destruction of infrastructure and institutions including 91 schools, 25 health centres and hospitals, 50 government offices, 281 monasteries, and 485 stupas (choetens) and seven dzongs. The total cost of damage in the shelter sector was estimated to be Nu 1.1 billion.

While such natural calamities are inevitable in a seismically active zone like Bhutan, being prepared for minimum casualties will go a long way in reducing destructions to both lives and infrastructures. The role of ICT at times of disaster and especially during the post-disaster search and rescue efforts are critical. Although there are no records of the role ICT played during the two major earthquakes in 2009 and 2011 and also during the 2016 January tremor that originated from Manipur, lessons are available for Bhutan to learn from Nepal.

During a two-day seminar on internet traffic management and e-resilience for the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) that concluded on December 8, representatives from Nepal shared their experience during the post-disaster search and rescue efforts. Nepal’s telecom sector suffered severe damage after the earthquake. A total of 525 BTS towers including 10 transmission towers, two fiber backhaul and 15 microwave links were damaged.

“Of the total 787MW hydropower facilities installed in Nepal, 115 MW hydropower facilities were fully damaged,” said one of the presenters at the seminar. He added that about 800km of distribution and 365 transformers were damaged and non-operational. The situations at that moment as described by the presenter were: there were no shared information platforms, no cross-agency situational-awareness platforms and no integrated incident command and control system. “All the emergency services were working independently improvising and adjusting to the situation presented to them,” he said, adding that the National Disaster Response Framework, which was approved in 2013, was not implemented.

Today, the ICT sector in Bhutan is growing, albeit slowly. The system is far from being resilient if a major calamity strikes the country soon. Experts have long predicted that Bhutan was long overdue for a major quake beyond a magnitude of eight. Should a tremor of that magnitude hit Bhutan, a slip of eight metres is anticipated. What Nepal experienced during the 2015 earthquake was a slip of two metres. The impact will be devastating if such a slip occurs.

Efforts to make ICT in Bhutan resilient to disasters is all at a nascent stage. The Department of IT and Telecom (DITT) is currently working on several measures to make the sector resilient. A total of 201 gewogs and 187 community centres are connected with fibre cables under the national fibre network. Meaning, today the mobile penetration in the country is at 88 percent and the Internet penetration is recorded at 69 percent.

However, poor mobile and Internet connectivity has affected users in the country. During times of disasters, the connectivity is expected to degrade further. To address the poor Internet connectivity and increase ICT redundancy, the government is in dialogue with the Indian counterpart and Bangladesh to bring in one more international Internet gateway from Bangladesh.

Bhutan today has only two international gateways, both from India. During times of disaster, if these two gateways are cut off, Bhutan will not have Internet access and it will not be able to connect to any international body for help. Officials from DITT said that due to the linear domestic fibre network and high cost of bandwidth along with lack of Internet redundancy, it is taking time for the sector to become resilient.

Feasibility for a ring fibre network to replace the linear domestic network are being carried out. If the system materialises, a five-ring fibre network will connect all the domestic ICT affairs without the risk of being cut-off during times of disasters. The government data centre will also be migrated to the TechPark in Thimphu with a secondary centre at the DITT office. A single hotline number is also being considered as the current multiple hotline numbers are confusing for public according to DITT officials.

Meanwhile, the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) has also multiple plans during times of disaster. “Individually all ministries and agencies have contingency plans during times of major disasters,” said senior programme officer with the department, Jigme Chogyal. However, a national level disaster contingency plan is currently being worked out after the Prime Minister asked the department to consolidate all the plans individual ministries and agencies have.

Jigme Chogyal said that due to the lack of in-house expertise, the national level plan has not materialised yet. “We have submitted a project to the Swiss Red Cross and in principle they have accepted the project,” he said. The department will also present the project proposal to GNHC in January next year. If the commission approves the proposal, works towards a national contingency will commence said Jigme Chogyal. DDM has managed to construct a national emergency operation centre in Thimphu, which is disaster resistant. During times of calamities the centre will operate as the central point for communication and rescue operations. In the future, Jigme Chogyal said that the centre will be connected to other such facilities in the rest of the dzongkhags.

This article is written by Younten Tshedup and is obtained from Kuensel Online (Bhutan).