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Celebrating World Environment Day 2015

Improving disaster resilience
Lessons from the Nepal earthquake

David James Molden

4 mins Read

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As the world celebrates World Environment Day, central Nepal, where ICIMOD is headquartered, is still recovering from a large earthquake that hit on 25 April. We cannot think of the usual topics surrounding World Environment Day – clean water, clean air, well managed natural resources – without thinking of what the earthquake has done to the people of the region. To what extent can their lives be restored?

“Mountain people are resilient”. This is a phrase that has often been repeated, especially after the earthquake struck central Nepal on 25 April – an earthquake that serves as a reminder that most people in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region live in earthquake-prone areas. But what does it mean to be resilient? At what level is resilience needed? What can be done to increase resilience? A common definition of resilience is the ability to readily recover from shocks: the ability to bounce back, to pick up the pieces, rebuild, and carry on. Many people in remote mountain villages salvaged pieces of broken houses and started building shelters long before outside help arrived, showing signs of resiliency. Many who did not have the ability or option to build temporary shelters slept in the open until tarpaulins or tents arrived days or weeks later. However, the true test of resilience for mountain societies will be the time it takes to recover, and whether a stronger society can be built.

Photo credit: Hemanta Shrestha

Mountain communities in the HKH region are prone not only to earthquakes, but, depending on their location, also to landslides or avalanches, to flash floods, to droughts, and to social challenges such as the outmigration of the able-bodied population. Their remote locations make access to services and markets a challenge. With a changing climate, their vulnerability to many outside shocks have increased, which also tests the resilience of mountain communities.

What have we learned from the Nepal earthquake that we can apply to make people safer, and to speed up the recovery from disasters that will inevitably continue to strike various parts of the HKH region?

First, the resilience of mountain people goes beyond individuals and communities and involves a web of actors including governments, local institutions, the international community, and organizations like ICIMOD, whose mission is to enable sustainable and resilient mountain development. It is inspiring to see how people from all walks of life have come together to help in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Second, communication infrastructure is essential. When walking to the nearest town can take three days, a working mobile phone is essential to call for help. While Nepal’s telecom operators hurried to bring damaged towers back into operation, many people were unable to make calls because they had nowhere to charge their phones. Wide availability of solar charging stations appears to be important.

Third, an effective central information collection and processing infrastructure is important. ICIMOD deployed a large team working around the clock to provide Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs with the latest maps and remote sensing images to help assess damage, identify landslides, and warn about possible river blockages. But it took many valuable days for the extent of the damage to become known, and for aid distribution to reach the most needy. Having a plan and a system in place, rather than building it after the worst disaster of a generation hits, is important.

Fourth, we came to learn that helicopter landing sites are important, especially in remote mountain areas. While helicopters from four countries flew around Nepal, often to places that had never been visited by helicopter before, one major constraint was finding suitable landing sites. Many villages are on terrain that that is too steep for a large helicopter to land. As schools are rebuilt, it is will be important to incorporate a flat space large enough for a helicopter to land.

Fifth, terrain and weather data is very important for the coordination of rescue and relief efforts. ICIMOD’s Atmosphere Initiative team provided essential services to 2,751 rescue and relief flights in tricky terrain.

Sixth, backups and redundancies are important. While Nepal was lucky that its only international airport stayed open. It had no back-up. Important networks – for communication, transport, and energy – need to be designed so that the loss of individual links does not bring the whole network to a halt.

Seventh, tradition and habit alone do not protect. Most deaths occurred when traditionally built houses crumbled, crushing inhabitants with heavy stones or bricks. More deaths occurred when landslides happened in places where there hadn’t been landslides in a long time. Earthquakes happen far enough apart that decades of safety does not mean places will stay safe. Earthquake resistant houses need to be built in safe locations.

As central Nepal embarks on a rebuilding process, it is important to incorporate these lessons, as well as to see the rebuilding as an opportunity to ensure that what is rebuilt is better than what was there before the earthquake – that people in rebuilt communities have access to clean water and sanitation, that inhale less smoke from cooking, and that their houses and livelihoods survive the next disaster.

I am confident that mountain communities will rebuild and transform into a stronger society. To do so, let us join hands, and also learn and share knowledge from this experience, an important role for ICIMOD.

With best wishes on the World Environment Day.

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