For years Bhutan has faced the risk of a natural disaster known as a glacial lake outburst flood, but assistance from Japan is helping to lower that risk, a senior Bhutanese official said in a recent interview.

Karma Tsering, director of the Department of Hydro-Met Services in Bhutan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, said the Japan International Cooperation Agency has been helping to develop an early warning system to minimize the losses and damage that would be generated by a sudden glacial lake outburst flood.

A GLOF occurs when a dam, either natural or manmade, containing a glacial lake fails as a result of erosion, a massive snow avalanche or other causes.

The biggest such tragedy on record hit the small Himalayan nation in 1994, when a glacial lake failed about 90 km upstream from Punakha dzong, killing more than 20 people and causing extensive damage.

According to official figures, there are more than 2,000 glacier lakes in Bhutan, and around 26 have been identified as candidates for outburst floods that could pose disasters.

Tsering said the Japanese government has also been actively involved in developing a glacier lake inventory and studying the geology of the Himalayas.

“Japanese experts have contributed a lot to the work that has been done in Bhutan pertaining to glacier lakes,” he said.

Tsering also noted the Japanese early warning system for GLOF is much cheaper than the one Bhutan had set up in Punakha valley, a rice farming district.

“The GLOF early warning system we established in Punakha has been very expensive. Later, we found out that JICA can actually set up an early warning system at a much cheaper cost,” he said.

JICA plans to begin full assistance in September, hoping to complete the project in 2016.

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