Decision making under uncertainty: the case of building earthquake resilience in Bhutan

Frances Harris, Fergus Lyon, Kuenga Wangmo

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


This paper seeks to investigate the how uncertainty about the risk of earthquakes affects decision making in Bhutan.
Bhutan has experienced serious earthquakes recently such as those in 2009 and 2011. However, there has not been a very sever earthquake in living memory or since records began. This has led some to claim that Bhutan is in a seismic gap, and may have a unique geology which means it is not prone to earthquakes in the same way as neighbouring Himalayan countries. However another theory is that there have been earthquakes but they have not been recorded. Recent evidence suggests a major earthquake in 1714 but this has not been remembered by those making decisions today.
Speculation concerning Bhutan’s vulnerability to earthquakes has increased since the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which had devastating consequences for lives and housing, and which was a clear wakeup call concerning the potential risk should an earthquake of similar magnitude occur in the country. In order to understand how people cope with such uncertainty, we explore the following research questions: How do different stakeholders perceive risk? What are the decision making processes under uncertainty? What are the decision making strategies of stakeholders? How to policy makers respond do uncertainty?
This paper draws on theories about how different parts of society use scientific knowledge and also theories about how people cope with and understand uncertainty. This exploratory study uses qualitative interview data from a purposeful sample of 25 stakeholders from national government, local government, businesses, farmers and Civil society organisations. This is analyzed to draw out key themes and an understanding of responses to uncertainty of seismic activity.
Perceived risk is found to vary with different groups of stakeholders drawing on their experiences and different use of scientific knowledge. There is also a difference in the ability to access scientific information and the knowledge of scientific language. Interviews suggested that those policy makers and decision makers who were closer to central government had a better understanding of the scientific knowledge underpinning earthquake risk.
To some there is a lack of willingness to discuss earthquakes as this is seen as inauspicious. This demonstrates the importance of understanding the role of faith based approaches and astrology as a form of coping with such uncertainty.
Conclusions are drawn about how risk is perceived in the Bhutanese context and how preparation for a major earthquake (and associated communications) need to understand these different perceptions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2019
EventInternational Society for Bhutan Studies Conference - Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom
Duration: 9 Jan 201910 Jan 2019


ConferenceInternational Society for Bhutan Studies Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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