Building stronger, safer homes in disaster-prone Bhutan

When Pema Lhamo, 50, from Thasa in Tsirang district built her new home recently, she did everything to make sure it would be able to withstand quakes, windstorms, fire and other disasters. Thanks to the disaster-resilient construction training for village artisans of which she was a part, Pema knows more than a thing or two about the importance of building safer homes.

“Had it not been for the training, we wouldn’t have any idea about how to build stronger and safer homes. I am grateful for the opportunity," the single mother of three said.

Zeko, who is also from Thasa too has built a new house after his old home was damaged by windstorm. Like Pema, he made sure to integrate disaster resilience features in his new house.

Pema and Zeko are among the 1800 plus people from the across the country who were trained in disaster-resilient construction practices since 2012 through a project supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and UNDP.

The trainees include district engineers, technicians, village artisans, local leaders, trainees from Technical Training Institutes and field officers of Tarayana Foundation. They are now playing a key role in helping families affected by disasters in their communities 'build back better' and in ensuring every new house is ‘built to last’.

The project, Capacity Building in Disaster Resilient Construction, was implemented by the Engineering Adaptation and Risk Reduction Division (EARRD), Department of Engineering Services (DES) under the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement (MoWHS). It was aimed at creating awareness on safe construction practices in the country and building its capacity in disaster-resilient construction at the national, local and community level.


The country falls in one of the most seismically active zones in the world. Building resilient infrastructure is key to enhancing adaptation to disasters and saving lives. Bhutan learned that the hard way.

On 21 September 2009, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck eastern Bhutan, damaging nearly 5000 rural houses, public buildings, cultural and religious monuments worth over Nu 2.5m (US$ 52m). Two years later when a 6.9 magnitude quake hit Nepal, the tremors were felt across Bhutan. This time around, close to 7000 structures, including homes, public buildings, cultural and religious monuments worth over Nu 1.197 million (US$ 24.26m) were damaged.

The recent quakes that rattled the country is what brought the ‘Capacity Building in Disaster Resilient Construction’ project into being. The two subsequent quakes exposed the vulnerabilities of Bhutanese homes and highlighted the need to enhance the quality of construction and ‘build better’ before another damaging quake hits the country.

If predictions are anything to go by, Bhutan is due for a 'big one'. A seven-year study of Bhutan’s geodynamics, the findings of which came out in October 2018, warned that the country could be hit by a magnitude 8 quake.

And a new study by EquiP-Bhutan project warns that in a worst-case scenario of an earthquake at night could cause at least 9,000 fatalities, 10,000 serious injuries and displace more than 40,000 people. For a small country with a meagre population of 700,000 plus, these numbers are staggering.

Besides quakes, Bhutan is also prone to windstorm. For instance in early 2019, 125 houses were damaged by a windstorm in the east of the country. The interventions carried out under the project is expected to help Bhutan prepare better for future disasters.

The project helped Bhutan develop training manuals on ‘Earthquake Resilient Stone Masonry Construction’, ‘Confined Masonry Construction’ and ‘Timber Joinery’. It supported the country in carrying out survey and mapping of housing typology in vulnerable districts, identifying risks and vulnerabilities of different housing typology and finding risk reduction options.

The project also helped enhance the capacity of Department of Engineering Services and Engineering Adaptation and Risk Reduction Division (EARRD).