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David James Molden, Gopilal Acharya & Eklabya Sharma
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Discussing a number of lessons learnt, this series of articles argue for a holistic approach to disaster preparedness and recovery, mainly focusing on the significance of livelihoods recovery. The authors also highlight the importance of cooperation and coordination among countries in the Himalayan region to improve understanding of seismic risks and prepare for earthquakes and their impacts.
The earthquake caused several secondary geo-hazards. More than 3,000 landslides occurred in the steep mountains and hills throughout the earthquake affected zone, posing additional risk to people and infrastructure (ICIMOD, 2015a). For example, the landslide that blocked the Kali Gandaki River in Myagdi district caused the river’s water to accumulate in a reservoir behind the landslide dam. The water overtopped and breached the natural dam, sending a flood of more than 2 million cubic meters of water downstream. There were other large mass movements generated by the earthquake and its aftershocks or other secondary effects. For example, scientists noted a zone of widespread, intense landslide incidence that ran east-west, approximately parallel to the transition between the Lesser and High Himalayas (Kargel et al., 2015). In other words, the highest densities of earthquake-related landslides were distributed within the broad area between the two biggest shocks. This zone contained numerous rock falls and debris avalanches, which were individually localised but together had catastrophic impacts on roads and villages. Subsequently, a group of scientists mapped 4,312 co-seismic and post-seismic landslides (ICIMOD, 2015a).
Many of the larger villages in the Langtang Valley were comprehensively destroyed by air pressure waves (sweeping down the steep slope), landslides, and avalanches in the aftermath of the earthquake. The avalanches made of snow and ice mixed with rock accelerated down the steep valley slopes, displacing the air and creating strong pressure waves. As a result the eight highest villages in the Langtang Valley were damaged or completely destroyed and many lives were lost. Early analysis of photographs and satellite imagery suggested that the debris and ice had accumulated in the past near an elevation of about 4,500 meter above mean sea level as a result of ice avalanches and rock fall from Langtang Lirung (ICIMOD, 2015a).
As relief and recovery operations picked up soon after the earthquake, ICIMOD’s geo-hazards and geo-information task force worked around the clock to process and analyse satellite data to inform relief interventions.
The demand for information rises exponentially in a disaster situation like the one Nepal faced, and therefore collecting, managing, processing, and disseminating timely and reliable information becomes critical to disaster relief and recovery operations. That’s why a good communication infrastructure is vital in such mega disasters. The central and local governments must institute an effective command and control mechanisms for good communication so that accurate and timely information is available for the actors in the field. Disaster communication strategies, timely media engagement, and reliable and fast internet connectivity with large bandwidths are other critical issues. The Nepal experience showed a huge gap in the demand and supply of information, especially given the country’s formidable physical terrain. Moreover, responding to a disaster of such a scale requires people to work round the clock, and providing that kind of information in short period is very challenging. Are responders on the ground getting the right kind of information they are looking for? Are information suppliers providing out the accurate information? These are some of the questions we need to ask.
Information flow even before the earthquake was questionable. Both state and non-state actors didn’t seem to have learned from the lessons of the past. Numerous seismologists have carried out research on earthquakes along the Himalayan arc, and yet not much information seems to have been passed down to the people. In the recent earthquake, even the Government didn’t seem to have the necessary information to quell people’s fears and anxiety immediately after the disaster.
In such a situation, there is the need for integrated data and information system, and arrangements should be in place for effective coordination and communication between central and local service providers. Such a mechanism would also facilitate the coordination of international disaster response teams. There were more than 20 response teams within the first three days after the earthquake (UNISDR, 2015).
In Nepal most infrastructures are vulnerable to hazards, especially buildings and homes in both rural and urban areas. The Government of Nepal has pointed out that the large-scale destruction of homes was primarily from the seismic vulnerability of unreinforced masonry homes in the rural countryside (NPC, 2015). It was these ‘low strength…brittle buildings’ that suffered most intensive and comprehensive damages in all the 39 districts that witnessed intense ground shaking. Thus, one of the more critical components to earthquake preparedness in Nepal has to be a stringent adherence to building codes. At the moment, very few house owners seem to follow the building codes, and most home are built by owners themselves. A study of 1,000 buildings in Kathmandu by the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal showed that over 90% are non-engineered (NSET, 2012). There is also the need to train masons and provide technical training in seismic resilience for engineers and other specialists.
In rural Nepal, the issue is even more urgent since all homes non-engineered. The village of Barpak under Gorkha district stands a clear testimony to how a major earthquake can flatten the entire village within a matter of seconds. Further, most homes are built informally by untrained local carpenters and masons using the traditional mix of mud and stones, technically considered as ‘low strength masonry’ (NSET, 2002). In recent times, thatched roofs are being replaced by corrugated iron roofs. Therefore, given that these homes come crumbling down or sustain damage even during moderate ground shaking, it probably is time to encourage rural residents to use low cost and locally available light building materials like bamboo, straw, grass, jute sticks, leaves, thatch, and timber. This will not only lessen damage to people and property, but also curtail overall economic loss. However, the Government should familiarize people to these low-cost techniques.
In heavily populated urban centers like Kathmandu, the government must evaluate the seismic performance of each structure and make necessary recommendations. A common building codes compliance strategy should be implemented in urban centers. The government of Nepal could take examples from earthquake-prone countries like Japan that have developed state-of-the-art structural technology over the years. One way of building back a better Nepal is by continually advancing the building standards. It’s heartening to note that National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal has already started training masons on safer construction as part of the ongoing Building Code Implementation Programme. Such programmes should be focusing on building institutional and local capacity to enforce the National Building Code.
David Molden (PhD) is the Director General of Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD); Eklabya Sharma (PhD) is ICIMOD’s Director of Programme Operations; Gopilal Acharya (formerly ICIMOD’s Communications Specialist) is a Thimphu-based independent consultant.
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