Incorporating Disaster Resilience into Cultural Heritage Buildings in Bhutan

Punakha Dzong (2013) © Arian Zwegers CC BY 2.0


Cultural heritage sites in Bhutan are considered “living” heritage sites because they continue to play an active role in the daily lives of society. Disasters have physically affected Bhutan’s cultural heritage sites and have also disrupted centuries-old communal and social traditions. The great vulnerability of Bhutan’s unique cultural heritage sites can be seen in the effect of events over the last 20 years, starting in 1994, when the Punakha Dzong (a huge structure built as a fortress in the 17th century) was severely damaged by a glacial lake outburst flood, and continuing to 2009 and 2011, when earthquakes damaged over 200 cultural heritages sites and thousands of rural dwellings.

It was estimated that the physical loss of the structures - mainly lhakhangs (temples) and dzongs (fortresses) - was US$13.5 million for the 2009 earthquake and US$6.96 million for the 2011 earthquake. These are large losses for a small developing country. The actual loss, however, is much larger, since it goes beyond the loss of the physical structures and includes the loss of interior assets known as nangtens (paintings, sculptures, carvings, etc.). In many cases, these assets are irreplaceable. Moreover, the loss to spiritual values and traditions cannot be estimated in terms of monetary value.

Several programs and trainings have been conducted to proactively address disaster resilience in cultural heritage sites, and good construction guidelines have been formulated by the national government to help prevent or minimize damage to cultural heritage sites during disaster events. A study of indigenous construction practices, which began after the 2009 earthquake, has been ongoing, and hundreds of carpenters and masons in the affected districts have been trained in safe construction practices to facilitate reconstruction of the damaged cultural heritage buildings and rural houses. One positive and surprising outcome of this training program was the discovery that most of the local carpenters and masons already had the knowledge and skills needed for traditional—and more disaster-resilient—construction, though this knowledge had deteriorated over time as the traditional construction practices grew less popular and as the rapid completion of buildings was made a priority. It also appeared that in the interest of saving time and money, compromises were being made in the quality of materials as well as construction techniques, leaving structures even more vulnerable to disasters.

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Earthquake Flood Bhutan