A team of disaster response specialists from Special Operations Command Pacific conducted the first ever military exchange between the U.S. and Kingdom of Bhutan in Thimphu, Bhutan November 12-14, 2019.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most isolated nations in the world and is located between India and the People’s Republic of China’s in the Himalayas. A mountainous nation in the seismically active Himalayan belt, Bhutan is prone to floods, earthquakes, glacial lake outbursts and forest fires.
Guided by the unique national concept of “Gross National Happiness,” over the past decade the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has achieved rapid economic growth and reducing extreme poverty through focused investments in health and education. This unique state has also experienced a peaceful transition to a democratically elected government alongside a constitutional monarchy have resulted in a dramatic reduction in poverty and rise in living standards.
The Royal Government of Bhutan recognizes the threats they face from their location on the Eurasian Indian fault line despite not suffering a major disaster in several decades. According to Mr. Jigue Thinley Namgyal, Director General of Bhutan's Disaster Management Agency, they are striving to build a disaster resilient nation to safeguard their “Gross National Happiness” prior to the next natural disaster.
This Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE) focused on disaster response and preparedness and while the U.S. and Bhutan have had some contact over the past decade, including engagements with USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, this is the first formal engagement with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Kingdom of Bhutan.
The SMEE was developed with Bhutan’s Department of Disaster Management and had participation from several agencies to include the Royal Bhutan Army, Royal Bhutan Police, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health, and other first responders and government agencies to include utilities and engineering.
The U.S. team consisted of USINDOPACOM’s Theater Civil-Military Support Element (TCMSE), a disaster data specialist from the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center, a Physician’s Assistant from the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), and SOCPAC’s Public Affairs team.
This SMEE is the first step in developing a relationship with the Bhutanese Department of Disaster Management and gave the Government of Bhutan insight into the unique capabilities USINDOPACOM can provide during a disaster response.
"This exchange is designed to give USINDOPACOM an understanding of how best we can assist the Kingdom of Bhutan in the event of a disaster,” said Maj. Ari Cohen, SOCPAC TCMSE leader. “USINDOPACOM assists only when requested by the affected nation, and when the request is received through diplomatic channels we will coordinate relief operations in support of U.S. Department of State's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance."
The exchange began with a workshop focused on the US’s disaster assistance provided after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal, which provided a framework for Bhutan to understand the U.S. capacity to assist in the Himalayas.
Classes and interactive discussion focused on medical preparedness, international assistance management, how to request U.S. assistance and support since the U.S. does not have a diplomatic presence in Bhutan and how Bhutan has prepared for and responded to past incidents.
The exchange culminated with a tabletop exercise that enabled all participants to work together through an earthquake scenario that rendered several hospitals and the only international airport unable to operate. Mr. Jared Batzel from the Pacific Disaster Center oversaw the TTX and said, “The Bhutanese have clearly thought through their response, and being a small close-knit community know who to contact to within their government to provide needed response. This is a needed critical first step is establishing disaster resilience.”
The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) participated in the exchange and in recent years has been supporting the Government of Bhutan in preparing for and responding to natural disasters to include capacity building, logistics, emergency telecommunications and food security. By working with and the WFP who maintain a persistent presence in Bhutan the USINDOPACOM TCMSE hopes to establish an enduring program that enhances Bhutan’s Department of Disaster Management and ongoing efforts to improve their disaster preparedness.
This exchange is the first of what both nations hope to become an enduring effort in establishing a friendship and collectively building disaster resilience, response and preparedness.
"While this is the first time we are working together, let it not be the last. We welcome this collaboration into making Bhutan a disaster resilient country,” said Mr. Namgyal. “We need to work together, learn from each other, and help each other to improve our response to disasters."