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About Trashigang
Trashigang town: old and vulnerable
Trashigang town, one of the oldest urban centres in eastern part of the country, is not new to natural disasters.

The Mithridrang stream that flows through the town has flooded on several occasions in the past and caused large-scale destruction of property.

Huge boulders perched on the bare cliffs overlooking the town threaten to roll down anytime and there have been incidents where a loose boulder has crashed into the cluster of houses below.

But the recent fire incident in which the living quarters and belongings of 15 families were burnt to the ground has residents talking of how vulnerable the town is to flames. Trashigang town is mostly made up of traditional wooden structures that are crammed together in the little available space.

"Until now we had other disasters to worry about," said 27-year old Dorji, who grew up in the town. "But with houses getting older fire is a real threat. It could eat up the entire town in one go."

Though the cause of the fire is still not known, Trashigang dzongda Minjur Dorji said that old fragile wires in the house may have caused the fire. "Besides being one of the oldest towns, Trashigang was also one of the first few towns to be electrified in the early seventies," he said. "And since then, most of the house owners have not changed the electric wiring."

The last fire incident in the town happened in 2002 when a house near the bus station was burnt down by a blasting gas cylinder.

Trashigang Town
Since 2006 the dzongkhag had encouraged private builders to construct concrete buildings. "We have no other options," said the dzongda. "Besides, the builders have realised that building concrete structures are much cheaper and convenient whereas timber is difficult to obtain and is more expensive."

According to the dzongkhag municipal office the 138-acre town, excluding the extensions, consists of 119 permanent buildings including government buildings, 32 semi permanent houses and 35 hutments.

"Of these structures, more than 90 percent are old traditional houses," said the municipal engineer.

In the core town area there are five one-storey traditional buildings, 25 two-storey and 20 three-storey traditional buildings. The town has only six concrete private and the government buildings.

The engineer said that the houses which were very close to each other, were also built from materials that could easily catch fire. "The municipal office has constantly reminded house owners to change wiring but not one has done so," she said, adding that electric wires were also supplied to some of the houses.

According to the Bhutan Building rules every house should have fire extinguishers, but it was noticed that only a few had them despite it being made mandatory by the municipality. And among those who had it most did not know how to use it.

The town has proposals to increase the number of fire hydrants in the town area. "We have three fire hydrants in the dzong area, upper and the lower market, we need to have few more in the residential areas," said the engineer. In the dzong area buckets filled with water are kept ready 24 hours.

However, dzongda Minjur Dorji said that the dzongkhag had only one fire-fighting engine, which was not sufficient considering the size of the town and its population.

A spokesperson for the Royal Bhutan Police said that police personnel were taught fire fighting drills to supplement the fire department but lacked professional training or equipment.

The much talked about plan to shift the entire town to a new location appears to have fallen through. Dzongda Minjur Dorji said that it would be impossible to relocate the town. "We have the dzongkhag administration, the rabdey, school, hospital and the necessary infrastructure here," he said.

Chief town planner Megraj Adhikari said that there were no such plans and the town would remain in the present location. But the town would be extended upward towards a village called Melphay. "Considering the physical constrains of the present town selective construction would be allowed which does not promote a high density town," he said.

The extension and completion of living quarters under the urban housing plan is expected to ease the housing crunch and major facelift work is also being carried out with support from DANIDA and the government to improve water supply, lighting, sewerage, riverbank retention walls and drainage systems. The dzongkhag is also prioritising the need for parking space and proper garbage disposal.

With the watershed management and flood prevention works underway dzongkhag officials said the problem of flashfloods and shooting boulders should stabilise. Additional preventive works would be carried out by constructing chain links.

Megraj Adhikari said that the beauty of Trashigang town was the traditional architecture of the houses and any attempt to change it would spoil its beauty. "While fire within a house can be prevented by using proper quality materials, it is up to people to prevent fire from external sources," he said. "It is also a general observation that traditional houses withstood earthquakes better than concrete buildings."

Only about 10 houses in the entire town were insured against fire hazards and these were houses that had loans with financial institutions.

Given the situation, fires could be the biggest threat to the oldest town in eastern Bhutan.

Contributed by Kesang Dema, Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2007
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