(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Bhutanese deal signals swifter delivery

Bhutan flag. For generic use
Andrea Williams/Flickr

The UN has welcomed a decision by Bhutan to finalize the Model Customs Facilitation Agreement, a bilateral agreement allowing for the expedition of aid to the country in the event of a disaster.

"This is a major step and could prove pioneering for others in the region," Rajan Gengaje, regional disaster response adviser at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN.

While the tiny Himalayan kingdom is largely closed - issuing only 1,600 tourist visas per year - its vulnerability to natural disasters has led the government to prioritize the rapid deployment of international aid in emergency situations by lowering customs barriers.

"There has been increasing recognition of the need for disaster management. They are learning from experiences in the past," Karma Lodey Rapten, head of Energy, Environment and Disaster Management for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said from Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital.

Aid expedited through customs

Developed by OCHA and approved by the World Customs Organization, the agreement between the UN and member states includes recommended measures to expedite customs clearance procedures, including simplified documentation and inspection procedures, the temporary or permanent waiving of duties and taxes on imports, as well as clearance arrangements outside official working hours and locations.

The agreement will allow aid consignments, including search and rescue teams, dog teams and mobile medical units, speedy entry and transit into the country in the event of a disaster.

"The first 72 hours are very crucial if we are to save people; there is no time [to go through customs]," said Gengaje, stressing that the lifesaving window was always limited in a disaster.

Disaster risk

According to OCHA, the 46,000 sqkm landlocked Bhutan is highly prone to natural disasters, including earthquakes, flash floods, landslides, forest fires, and glacier lake floods.

"Seismologists have been predicting a big Himalayan bang," Gengaje warned. Nepal, India, and Bhutan are all at risk, he said.

In 2009, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck a highly populated area in the Monga district town, just 177km from Thimpu at 1,600m elevation, destroying more than 500 homes, schools and temples, with aftershocks felt as far away as Bangladesh and Tibet.

"Disasters in the past, such as floods and fire incidents, demonstrate the need for procedures to streamline the response process," said UNDP's Rapten.

Without the customs agreement, "in case of an event, it would be difficult for Bhutan, given the mountainous terrain and present state of infrastructure against legal framework and preparedness they have, to receive incoming international assistance", Gengaje explained.

Bhutan is expected to sign the agreement in September, making it only the second country in South Asia to accede to the agreement after Nepal, which signed in May 2007.


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