Keynote Address by Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley at the International Conference on Disaster Management & Cultural Heritage, December 12, 2010 at Convention Center, Thimphu

Hon’ble ministers, Hon’ble members of the Parliament,

Your Excellency Ms. Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the Secretary-General of Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR);

Mr. Saroj Jha, Program Manager and Head of Secretariat, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, Word Bank;

Madame Claire Van der Vaeren, Resident Coordinator, UN Systems in Bhutan;

Distinguished Guests;Ladies and Gentlemen.

All life forms have become victims of an increasing frequency of disasters that are striking with greater fury and devastation as never before. They come in the form of both man made and natural events. Not so long ago, disasters of any kind were few and far in between and they were unpredictable, unexpected. But now, not only have they become more frequent, they have become a regular nightmare. And we accept this reality.

What we cannot accept and bear is the loss, despair, pain and suffering that disaster cause. And here, I am unable to resist the compulsion to share my deep-seated belief that we human beings are singularly responsible for our own predicament. More and more of the natural disasters are triggered by human action and our irresponsible way of life. And as I humbly submitted at the 4th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, I see these calamities as signs of a planet reeling under the torture of human abuse. They are the cries of a dying earth whose capacity to support life is diminishing even as we foolishly go on believing that pursuit of unlimited growth will lead to greater prosperity. Ephemeral material prosperity: yes. But not sustainable human life and happiness. We inch closer to self destruction by the day as we employ the wonders of advancing technology to accelerate the exhaustion of nature’s finite resources, produce more and consume voraciously to make ourselves richer, sicker, wasteful, uncaring and irresponsible as we go on polluting and poisoning our environment.

Global warming, climate change and their attendant impacts are what beckon and trigger the disasters. And as the gaping hole in the ozone layer widens, as global hydrology changes and as fresh water reserves deplete further, as fish stocks dwindle and so on, we can expect more irreparable ruin and suffering of the scale our race and all other species with which we share this unique domain, have never known. And what do we do? Precious little. I am yet to receive a full report on the actual result of the talk-a-thon in Cancun. ‘A glimmer of hope’ is what some have optimistically reported as the outcome. What I do know is that the Kyoto Protocol has suffered near invalidation and a binding agreement has eluded us yet again while rich promises remain just what they are. We are not a rational, responsible race!

Since we are here to discuss the narrower and more immediate needs for devising ways and means to respond to disasters and not their causes in general, I shall now focus on the subject of the conference. However, let us agree that in our failure to alter our way of life in a drastic way, we are condemned to suffer more and greater disasters. All we can do in the meanwhile, is to share our resources and combine our endeavours as this gathering is intended to do.

Every year disasters claim hundreds and thousands of lives and damage properties and infrastructure worth millions, in fact, billions of dollars. It is undeniable that disaster risks associated with natural hazards constitute one of the main challenges facing development efforts all around the world, especially in developing countries. Their impacts have persistently contributed to, if not directly brought about, adverse impacts, often resulting in reversals, on poverty and human development efforts. These are undermining the little gains we have made against the very basic Millennium Development Goals. As the correlation among disaster risks, disaster incidences and global climate change increases, deepening and acceleration of poverty are a real threat.

Countries that are least prepared will be the ones that will suffer the most. This raises the need to urgently step up disaster risk reduction activities and appropriate resources in a very deliberate and purposeful way to consolidate and coordinate disaster risk reduction, poverty reduction and climate change adaptation initiatives. Above all, it calls for the revival, strengthening and creation of a culture of disaster resilience and adaptation in our communities.

To create a disaster resilient community we need to strengthen the social fabric of our society, which are founded on cultural values and institutions. We need to entwine disaster management initiatives with age-old knowledge and traditions that have served to advance our people in the finer aspects of human life. Our endeavour must be to build social capital of the kind that we have lost and undermined in our mindless pursuit of wealth and self interest. To do so, we must revitalize, nourish and employ our spiritual, cultural and relational values, manifestations and practices. And these survive and receive their nourishment from the vast physical or tangible cultural heritage that we all possess, sometimes regretfully, with not enough pride and stewardship.

Our cultural heritage may exist in the form of grand edifices or in less pretentious forms. Sometimes they exist in natural forms and, of course, in a host of non-tangible forms as well. It is in these and through these that our traditions, beliefs and knowledge are stored and sustained. Take away these and we lose our identity, culture, history, and our very human essence. What are we without these values? How then can we claim to be societies and communities with a soul? There can be no essence without form and likewise, no form can exist without essence. If one disappears or falls prey to disrepair and disuse, the other will surely follow. Our heritage structures are therefore, the essence of our being sovereign, unique and humane entities. Of more recent importance of course, is that cultural heritage is the main attraction and driver of the growing tourism sector.

But with rising dangers of earth quakes, floods, land slides, fire, tsunamis, cyclones and so on, our cultural heritage too have become vulnerable and are exposed. We must therefore, even as we prepare for other eventualities, devote our thoughts, resources and energies to ensure that disasters do not impoverish us of our spiritual and cultural well being; that, in their destruction and disrepair, we do not lose spirit and the courage to recover from our emotional and material losses as families, communities, as nations and as civilized human beings.

The Royal Government and I are therefore, very pleased to host this unusual conference which is intended to address the gap in the concern and attention for the mitigation, conservation and restoration needs of our cultural heritage. On behalf of His Majesty the King, the Royal Government and the people of Bhutan, I wish to thank those who have made this extremely important event possible for the sharing of valuable knowledge and experiences. The sponsors that I wish to acknowledge are, among others, The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, WB global Facility for disaster Reduction and Recovery, and the UNDP. And of course, I would like to specially commend the Home Minister, Lyonpo Minjur Dorji for his initiative and the support he has received from his able colleagues in the ministry and in particular, from the Department of Disaster Management. It is a privilege for Bhutan to host this unique and opportune conference on “Disaster Management and Cultural Heritage – Living in Harmony with the Four Elements”.

It is most fitting that the conference is held in Bhutan as we, a small developing country, highly susceptible to disasters, have always placed the conservation of cultural heritage high on our agenda. We have always recognized the centrality of our cultural heritage to our development process. In fact, in our pursuit of happiness as the end purpose of development, wherein the well being of the human individual as an integral member of society is the focus, culture is one of four pillars. And of equal importance is the need to live in harmony with nature.

I am aware that the four elements of nature have been assigned special importance in this conference in the context of its cultural theme. I therefore, wish to mention that the philosophy of GNH which forms the basis of our development paradigm, is founded on the belief that the extent to which an individual can find happiness will be conditioned profoundly by his/her success in communing and living harmoniously with nature. This is because, in the end, the human being, like all forms of life is a compounded structure of the four elements and is therefore naturally dependent on the essence of his sustenance on nature.

In concluding, allow me once again, to thank all those who have made this conference possible. I would also like to take this opportunity to wish all the distinguished foreign participants a very happy and productive stay. May you all succeed in your noble pursuit.

Tashi Delek.

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