Disaster Preparedness: Over-trained Under-prepared?

I don’t have the data to support this claim, but it seems to me that per capita, Bhutan is probably the most over-trained country in the world. To put it unkindly, HRD has for long been one of the enduring scams in the civil service. Its reason for being was never challenged and its application has gradually evolved from being nepotistic to a bit more democratic but it’s rarely been meritocratic. At any point in time, too many civil servants are out training. *

In terms of disaster preparedness however, it seems it has had little impact. While I can’t comment much on other forms of preparation a lot of which has begun in recent years, disasters caused by building failure and subsequent disasters is something I may be more familiar with.

Architects bemoan the fact that their creativity must revolve around the more urgent requirements of public safety. The building codes are written with this in mind, and in Bhutan we have a set of codes photocopied off the Indian Codes. The codes lie mostly on the shelves unfortunately. The municipal authorities are overworked simply reviewing ownership documents, set backs, development control regulations in addition to tons of their own self-made bureaucratese. They have little time for more. It already takes about a year for building permits to be issued in Thimphu not including the year long running around prior to that.

Designing for escape from a burning or collapsing building is an important part of the codes and an entire chapter is devoted to this in most building codes. It affects everything from the width of the corridor and staircase, to the number of doors required per room, the number of stairwells required, the minimum distance required between stairs, the materials permitted etc etc.

How should I put it except to say that this entire chapter is ignored in Bhutan. In our new buildings you will find that stairs are too few, many too narrow for public buildings, escape routes are bunched together instead of being separated, stairwells are left open instead of being enclosed etc etc.

In a disaster, the outcome is likely to be tragic. Crowds will be pushing to squeeze through openings too few in number and too narrow. Unprotected escape routes will themselves function as chimneys to fan the flames. With roofs and eaves built with flammable materials banned in other countries, spread of flames from one house to the next will be a matter of seconds.

The 18 September earthquake in Sikkim was a really good reminder of the disaster that we are preparing for ourselves. On Norzin Lam, a mad scramble was witnessed of the very thing I write as too many people tried to escape through a stairwell barely 1m wide from a 6 storey building. Several fell down and had to crawl out as others dashed over them. Remember that this 6.9M quake was 160km away and in Thimphu would have been far less intensely felt here in Thimphu.

There is talk now of permitting 10 or even 20 storey buildings. Imagine trying to escape from that one!

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* In the 10th FYP there is a bill of Nu.246m to train 234 people for short term programs which amounts to Nu.1m per person + a bill of Nu. 147m for another 234 short term programs or Nu.0.8 per person. The total is Nu.393m for 468 people. (Referenced from the RCSC HRD Masterplan for the 10th Plan.)

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