Ugyen-san, an Urban Planner from Bhutan

【画像】Name of the Training Program: Strategy for Resilient Societies to Natural Disasters
Duration: January 12 - March 7, 2015
Post: Chief Urban Planner, Department of Human Settlement, Ministry of Works and Human Settlement
Name: Mr. Ugyen M TENZIN

The King and Queen of the Kingdom of Bhutan made a royal visit to Japan in Fall, 2011. They made prayer in Fukushima-ken Soma-city after 6 month from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Japanese media enthusiastically published and broadcasted the photogenic couple’s daily activities and the new concept for Japanese as Gross National Happiness (NIH). In 2012, a new department, “Department of Human Settlement” was born in Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. “Bhutan and its traditional villages are rapidly urbanizing. But, I want to introduce the concept of resilience into the communities of Bhutan”, says Ugyen-san. I wonder how he observes “Present Japan” which is still in the process of reconstruction from the major disasters.

A camera for Japan

Discussion with my colleague

As I prepared for my trip to Japan, I pondered over the type of camera I should bring – the professional but heavy one that belongs to my office, a handy digital camera that a friend was willing to lend or if the built-in camera in my ‘not-so-smart’ phone would suffice. ‘Japan is full of details’, declared a colleague sharing his experiences from an earlier visit. His point was to suggest that I should take the best camera that I could manage. This seemingly trivial matter had become a subject of discussion in my office because we take our job seriously. I belong to a team of architects, urban designers and urban planners at Bhutan’s fairly young Department of Human Settlement. We take pride in having the privilege of dealing with, what we call, the charms and challenges of urban planning for happiness in Bhutan.

Charms & challenges of urban planning in Bhutan

Field visit with local government officials

Bhutan is a small, mountainous country bounded by the Indian plains to the south and the mighty Himalayan peaks to the north. Situated within a fragile mountain eco-system,the Bhutanese have learnt to live in harmony with the environment,often as per the tenets of religious scriptures. Despite rapid changes that the country is going through,it is still a predominantly traditional society. This is a fact of which the Bhutanese are very proud of,especially considering its focus on human values and respect for the environment. Therefore,efforts are made to pursue a balanced approach to equitable socio‐economic development, environmental conservation and cultural preservation.

Though more than two-third of the population still lives in rural areas, Bhutan is a rapidly urbanizing country. Major emerging issues are the impacts of towns and cities on the traditional settlement patterns and developments taking place in areas that were traditionally protected from construction for safety, environmental or cultural reasons. Bhutan‘s urban history is also very short. While it is challenging, it is also an exciting time to be an urban planner in Bhutan. Almost everything one does now becomes a precedent. We recognize our limitations and make conscious effort not to shy away from admitting our shortcoming. We believe if we are willing to learn, there will be someone willing to teach. We always look for good examples – good examples of what to do and also good examples of what not to do. So the invitation from JICA to participate in the training programme on Strategy for Resilient Societies to Natural Disasters was received with much appreciation.

Bhutan is not only located in a high seismic risk area, it is vulnerable to other natural disasters such as floods, landslides and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. Natural disasters are painful no matter where you are, but a country like Bhutan could suffer more because of its lack of preparedness and the small but close-knit society. In this regards, we have so much to learn from Japan and the City of Kobe, in particular. There is also the bonus opportunity of sharing and learning from the experiences of other participants and their countries. Since my arrival in Kobe there have been many lessons from the lectures and site visits. My camera has also captured so much that often cannot be described in words. The programme and the activities around it are already beginning to alter my view of my own job.

Lesson 1.17: Learning from the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake

At the Light of Hope Ceremony on 17th January

The Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake was a disaster far beyond human imagination. But the way in which the communities learned lessons from it and moved on, while still managing to keep the perils of natural disasters in public memory says a lot about their resilience. I pay my respects to those who had the strength and wisdom to transform one of the darkest moments in their lives into a story of inspiration. Participation in the 1.17 the Light of Hope ceremony, Memorial Walk and Offering of Flowers was a solemn yet inspiring experience for me. As I said a little prayer it dawned upon me how powerful the message was, even after all these years. This was the evidence that the lives of the victims have not been lost in vain, that their sacrifice and the pain of the survivors will be remembered and that the lessons will be passed on to the future generations so that no one suffers such pain and sorrow again.

Precious human lives and immeasurable assets were lost, but the disaster also served as a fountainhead of hope. We learnt how the disaster brought out the best in human kindness. Many volunteer activities and organizations started immediately after the earthquake. It triggered reforms in legislation and standard operating procedures related to disaster management. It changed public understanding of infrastructure development, community building and human relationships, both within Japan and beyond. The Hyogo Framework of Action was adopted in the City of Kobe in 2005 coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and incorporating many of the experiences and lessons developed, literally, from the ashes of the devastating earthquake of 17 January 1995.

Words of wisdom from the man who lived to share his stories

Tour of Minamisanriku Town with Goto-san

A field trip took our group to the Tohoku Region, in the footsteps of another sad and painful disaster, the Great East Japan Earthquake. Travelling through the affected coastal areas, I was dumbstruck by the destructive power of Mother Nature who gives us so much and yet could take back everything. I will never forget the words of wisdom shared by Goto-san, a survivor and our guide during our tour of Minami-sanriku town. Suppressing pain in his heart and tears in his eyes, he described the events of 11 March 2011 with many stories of heartbreak and occasional stories of joy, of narrow escapes. He taught us to respect the power of nature and to be aware of our limitations. His message for survival was not to rely absolutely on our scientific and technological advances but to develop a sixth sense by combining our five senses with the memory of the past disasters. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again and again, certainly not when it concerns human life.

Land of the Rising Sun: A personal interpretation & significance

Admiring a casket of Sake at Kuroshio Ichiba

At Jodogahama with advisors and other participants

I first heard of Japan when I was in primary school. Then I learned that Japan is known as the Land of the Rising Sun. As a young boy who had never travelled beyond the mountains that surrounded my small village, I often wondered why. We also had a sun and it rose every day. But seriously, since my arrival here I have never been tired of watching the unique beauty of the rising sun. Indeed it is a special feeling to know that you are already into the time which is still a ‘future’ to the rest of the world. I often wonder if that little extra time of being ahead, even if it is created by nothing more than an imaginary line, allows Japan to stay ahead of the rest of the world in many ways.

The view of the setting sun is also breathtakingly beautiful (if you manage to be at the right place, at the right time). The knowledge that it will rise again to give another day, one day at a time, gives hope. And on this note of hope, I would like to pay tribute to Goto-san. He concluded his talk with this message - ‘I share these lessons from the disaster in memory of those who lost their lives, so that others may live. Please take our lessons and share them with the people in your country. Let no country and let no people suffer such a disaster’.

I believe it is in this same spirit that JICA invited me to participate in this programme in commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. As much as the lessons, I have also learned of Japan’s sincerity and commitment to sharing its knowledge and experiences in disaster management. I hope that, in this and all other initiatives, the Sun of Japan will keep rising and that its light and warmth will continue to be shared with the rest of the world, as it does now.

Ugyen M Tenzin*, Architect Planner, Department of Human Settlement, Bhutan.
*The opinions expressed herein are that of my own and they do not in any way reflect the views of the Department of Human Settlement or the Government of Bhutan.

Editor’s Note

February 7th (SAT) and 8th (SUN), “One World Festival” was held in the sites of Ougimachi-Koen, Kansai TV Ougimachi Square and Osaka Kitashimin Center. February 8th (SUN) afternoon, 14 JICA participants from 8 countries attending the training course on “Strategy for Resilient Societies to Natural Disasters“, made a presentation to introduce their country’s present state. Ugyen-san made a presentation together with Norbu-san who is also attending the course, talked about their country with infectious humor. Thanks to those who attended, seminar room was full of audiences, and joyful moments of learning were shared. Through the various meetings and encounters in Kobe and Tohoku, Ugyen-san’s blue prints of city planning with “resilience” in mind beginning to form a shape of hope and a firm future projection. I’m looking forward to see a safe and comfortable town, where traditional culture and resilience are well balanced, will be produced in Bhutan’s rich natural environment.

ARITA Miyuki, Training Management Division, JICA Kansai