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The spate of deadly disasters in the past 10 years stands testimony to the region’s vulnerability, especially that of isolated and often impoverished mountain communities. The fragility of the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region cannot be understated, with glacial lake outburst floods, extreme precipitation, avalanches, landslides, and flashfloods being some of the common disasters that the region frequently experiences. The region’s fragile geology, steep terrain, and seismic vulnerability make things more precarious. Records with the Emergency Events Database EM-DAT show that from 1985 to 2014, a total of 1,766 disasters have struck the region1. Of these, 656 are floods, accounting for 37.1% of the total disasters, closely followed by storms at 26.2%, and earthquakes at 11.3%. In the recent years increasingly erratic and unpredictable monsoon rainfall patterns and increased climate variability have led to more severe and frequent flood disasters in the HKH region.
Among the more notable recent disasters in India, the 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir claimed hundreds of lives and blocked access to basic services for more than a million people. The devastating 2013 Uttarakhand floods killed more than 5,000 people, and the 2008 Koshi floods in Nepal and India affected more than 3 million people. These disasters have claimed lives, displaced people, wiped out homes, spread diseases, damaged infrastructures, affected agriculture productivity, and crippled economies, among others.
On 25 April, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. This was followed by a 7.3-magnitude aftershock on 12 May. More than 390 aftershocks have been recorded so far. The official death toll is now close to 9,000, with another 23,000 injured, more than 785,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and about 2.8 million people displaced. The earthquake affected 14 districts, and 55% of those who lost their life were women2 . The total value of the damage and loss caused by the earthquake is estimated at USD 7 billion3 , which is equivalent to about a third of Nepal’s Gross Domestic Product. The total loss in the agriculture sector, the main source of livelihood in most earthquake-affected areas, is estimated at around Nepalese rupees 28.4 billion. Additionally, the earthquake caused large-scale damage to forests and ecosystem services, affecting people’s forest-based incomes. Systematic analysis of satellite images has estimated forest loss of 2.2% in six of the earthquake-affected districts. Of the 20 protected areas seven have been affected, including a World Heritage Site (Sagarmatha National Park) and two Ramsar sites (Gosaikunda and Gokyo) that are globally significant in terms of mountain ecosystem and its rich biodiversity4 . Besides, 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. 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.
Similarly, the 7.6-magnitude Kashmir earthquake of 2005 triggered several thousand landslides, mainly rock falls and rock slides, around the epicenter in Pakistan. Several of these landslides dammed rivers, forming lakes upstream – including the Hattian landslide approximately 32 km southeast of Muzaffarabad – posing risk to thousands of people.
The Sendai Framework and its four pillars
Disaster risk reduction primarily focuses on mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015 – 2030) has identified four priorities for action: understanding disaster risk; strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk; investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and; enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction5 . The post-2015 Framework was adopted by UN Member States in March this year, including all eight countries of the HKH region. The Framework aims at reducing ‘substantially’ the global disaster mortality and the number of people affected. It has come up with seven global targets including enhancing international cooperation and increasing the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessment. The Framework sees disaster as a critical opportunity to build back better – including through the integration of disaster risk reduction in development planning – in order to make nations and communities more resilient to disasters. It provides a roadmap and implementation guidelines for the DRR activities for the next 15 years.
What do the four priorities mean to the region? Let us refer to the guidelines provided in the Framework for the four priorities at the different governance levels – local, national, regional, and global.
Priority 1: Understanding disaster risk
In the last 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, significant progress has been made in DRR in the region through the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action. However, gaps continue to remain in the understanding of disaster risk. At the national and local level, this can be strengthened through baseline assessments, use of scientific tools and technology, and capacity building. At the regional level, the Sendai Framework refers to the development of science-based tools and methodologies to strengthen disaster risk modeling, assessment, mapping and monitoring, and multi-hazard early warning system. Development of regional risk assessments and maps including climate change scenarios are other areas that need strengthening. At the global level, the Framework stresses on enhancing access to and support for innovation and technology such as space-based technology as well as multi-hazard and solution-driven research and development in disaster risk management.
Priority 2: Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk
Often, despite good monitoring and forecasting system in the region, early warnings have failed to be effective due to weak governance. This is probably one of the weakest links in the end-to-end early warning system. Therefore, strengthening disaster risk governance is critical if the early warning system is to be effective enough to saves lives and properties. Strengthening disaster risk governance should be for the full cycle of disaster management, from prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery, to rehabilitation. It is therefore necessary to foster collaboration and partnership across mechanisms and institutions for the implementation of instruments relevant to disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. At the regional level, the Sendai Framework calls for promotion of transboundary cooperation to build resilience and reduce disaster risk through knowledge sharing.
Priority 3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience
The Sendai Framework recognizes the need for increased investment in structural and non-structural measures for enhancing resilience. It calls for enhanced public private partnership in increasing investments. In the Hindu Kush Himalayas, meaningful partnership with private sector could reduce risk. Disasters often impede development, particularly in the fragile mountain regions. There is a greater need to integrate disaster risk reduction in development planning so that disasters do not churn out new risks. Further, promoting mechanisms for disaster risk transfer and insurance, risk sharing and retention and financial protection, as appropriate, for both public and private investment need to be explored in order to reduce the financial impact of disasters on governments and societies. The Framework calls for an increase in business resilience and protection of livelihoods and productive assets throughout the supply chains, and to ensure continuity of services and integrate disaster risk management into business models and practices. For example, one of the hardest hit sectors by the Nepal Earthquake was tourism. The economic contribution to the national economy has significantly dwindled, signaling the need to promote and integrate disaster risk management approaches throughout the tourism industry. At the global and regional level, the Sendai Framework emphasizes cooperation between various actors to promote and support the development of social safety nets as disaster risk reduction measures linked to and integrated with livelihood enhancement programmes in order to ensure resilience to shocks at the household and community levels.
Priority 4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction
The Sendai Framework stresses the need to “build back better” for a resilient society. The lesson we have learnt from disasters in the past is that the recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction phase is a critical opportunity to build back better, mainly through integrating disaster risk reduction into development planning. This would include promoting the resilience of new and existing critical infrastructure, including water, transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and educational and health facilities so that they remain safe, effective, and operational during and after disasters in order to provide life-saving and essential services. The Framework identifies opportunity for regional organizations to strengthen regional multi-hazard early warning mechanisms in line with the Global Framework for Climate Services, and to facilitate the sharing and exchange of information across countries.
Lessons from the Nepal Earthquake
The Nepal Earthquake left behind a number of important lessons.
First, 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 band widths are other critical issues.
Second, countries in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, like Nepal, are highly susceptible to geo-hazards posing grave risk to settlements and infrastructures. This is where knowledge and specialized institutions can play critical role by providing geo-information to the governments and other actors with satellite-based data and analyses to inform rescue and relief. Similarly, an inventory of landslides, their categorization according to the associated risks, and landslide susceptibility zoning is essential for the relocation of inhabitants, resettlement, and construction. In the long-term, risk identification, hazard zoning, and proper land use planning are recommended.
Third, there must be a stringent implementation of building codes through building codes compliance strategy. There is also the need to train masons and provide technical training in seismic resilience for engineers and other building specialists. This would promote the construction of earthquake-resistant homes and public infrastructures.
Fourth, one of the lessons we learn after each disaster is that preparedness is critical and necessary safeguards must be put in place. Drills and simulations must be conducted and communities must be involved in writing disaster management plans. Safe settlement areas must be identified and hazard-prone areas zoned.
Fifth, in the long-term, the focus must be on building resilience. Experiences show that building community resilience to shocks is more cost effective than humanitarian response. A stronger livelihood base for people is the essential building block of resilience. In addition, communities need better protection. For DRR this can be conceptualized around three pillars: capacity building for better risk assessment, and for forecasting and communicating early warning messages to the last mile; institution building for good risk governance at regional, national, river basin, and community levels; and the choice of appropriate technologies for developing information systems for forecasting and early warning, and technologies for improving infrastructure safety to make them climate resilient.
Last but not the least, when it comes to the concept of “building back better” as spelt out in the Sendai Framework, putting livelihood recovery at the center is crucial. This would mean not only restoring livelihoods and communities to their pre-disaster conditions, but also developing long-term strategy for the transition from reconstruction and restoration to sustainable livelihoods that are more resilient to future disasters. Governments must develop long-term framework where efforts, from early on, must focus on people and revitalizing their livelihoods. Such a framework should particularly spell out short-term priorities as well as inform long-term policies and strategies providing guidelines for the effective design and implementation of livelihood recovery efforts. A sustainable livelihood recovery strategy must identify emerging opportunities, engage local people and institutions in recovery planning and implementation, reach out to the most vulnerable groups like women and other poor and marginalized communities, design sector-specific recovery strategies, and adopt an integrated approach that brings together employment-intensive reconstruction, the skills development of local people, enterprise development, microfinance, and social protection. Besides, in countries like Nepal where remittances substantially fuel the national economy, ways must be explored to broaden scope for remittances to help economic recovery.
Given that the HKH region is a major disaster hotspot in the world, and given the vulnerability of mountain people as exposed by the Nepal earthquake, concerted efforts are required on disaster risk management. The Sendai Framework provides a solid basis to the region to work collectively towards reducing disaster risks for a safer and resilient society. This would include strengthening DRR-related activities such as bridging science, technology, and innovations to increase resilience; collaborating on multi-hazard early warning system, and hazard and vulnerability assessment for climate change adaptation; building capacity on DRR and resilience; engaging the private sector; and improving DRR governance and investments, among others. While a lot of efforts at community level is needed, there is also the need to invest in governments’ ability to respond. This would not only improve emergency response capacity, but also ensure that emergency plans are ready when disasters strike.
Unfortunately, in many a case, the sense of urgency often slackens as the memory of damage, destruction, and distress fade away with time until the next big disaster rears its ugly head. It is without a doubt worth every effort to stay alert, and put safeguards in place now in our fragile yet special mountain areas.
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