The April 25 Nepal disaster is yet another reminder for us to develop a sound policy for disaster preparedness strategy for the central Himalayan region. Being vulnerable to both floods and earthquakes, this region requires special attention. Special efforts need to be mounted to develop hazard scenarios and models using land zonation maps.
Today’s computing packages can balance demands with sustainability and provide optimum scenarios within acceptable levels of risk. A realistic mitigation strategy should be based on a blueprint that strikes a balance between development, acceptable levels of risk and economics. This can not only popularise land use planning, but also encourage people to adopt building codes (minimum construction standards) effective for reducing disaster losses.
Most low income groups in disaster prone areas live in poor quality houses. We need to provide incentives to change the local outlook towards disaster management and preparation. It is thus necessary to improve upon traditional construction practices and architectural preferences and put them into practice. The impact of natural disasters can be reduced through two basic approaches—mitigation, and response.
Mitigation involves action taken, by applying scientific and technological inputs—before, during and after the occurrence of a natural event, which can minimise the impact of the event/disaster. A realistic mitigation strategy includes—
- Demarcating areas that are prone to hazards;
- Indicating the nature of hazards;
- Identifying populations and structures vulnerable to specific hazards;
- Fixing standards for acceptable levels of risk; and
- Developing an appropriate plan of action based on cost–benefit analysis.
Response includes actions taken during and immediately after the event. There are various elements in a disaster mitigation programme. It may involve hazard zonation, that is, demarcation of areas prone to floods, earthquakes or landslides; strengthening structures to reduce vulnerability; generating a scientifically sound land use map that encourages people to move away from vulnerable areas, and warning of impending hazards like floods and cyclones. Response encompasses both short-term emergency action (rescue operations mounted by the police or the army) as well as longer term actions (distribution of food, shelter or rebuilding of homes).
Although both mitigation and response are equally important, political and cultural reasons have always laid emphasis only on response. Elsewhere, especially in developed countries, the last decade has seen a major shift from the traditional focus on response and recovery to mitigation, that is, preventive action meant to reduce the effects of natural hazards.
The Himalayan region and disaster management
The Himalayas comprise a dynamic, changing landscape. Earthquakes, avalanches and floods are natural processes that can spell disaster for those who live on its fringes.
Our experience in Himalayan towns, indicates that better building practices could notably lessen the impact of destructive earthquakes. Our present understanding of seismology allows us to reasonably quantify the expected ground motion in any region; this can be the basis for designing earthquake resistant buildings. We must develop online disaster information networks that include spatial maps delineating hazard zones, primarily, a geographical information system (GIS) package. This system can also use archival data on past events in conjunction with online data. Recent trends in data dissemination can be useful in planning emergency services. For example, the latest advances in seismic sensor technology, data acquisition systems, digital communication and computer hardware and software can facilitate the development of real time earthquake information systems. In fact, real time data dissemination through free sharing of data ought to become the backbone of any disaster management system. For this, we need to change the present order of things where access to data remains a tall order, requiring the endorsement for various authorities.
We also need to seriously think of land use planning, and implementation of building codes. This will not be an easy task, since it will need acquiescence from the local people. Herein, rather than using strong arm tactics, incentives such as lower building and property taxes for those who opt to live away from hazardous areas may work far better. Ultimately, the subsidies and tax discounts can be easily offset by the lower losses incurred during a disaster. As a starting point, the government can lead by example by implementing safe building norms in its own constructions in hazardous regions.
To strengthen our disaster management capabilities, it is important that we build a pool of trained scientists and technologists. For this, we need to change our university departments from being watertight compartments. Students ought to be allowed to choose relevant optional topics even while they major in one subject. Syllabi ought to be updated regularly to accommodate newer and relevant topics. Interaction between research organisations, relevant university departments, non-governmental organisations and interested public/private companies must be encouraged for transfer of knowledge and expertise. All these cannot be accomplished overnight, but a beginning will need to be made. Our leadership must realise that scientific studies, proper engineering and public awareness are the fundamental pillars of an effective hazard mitigation strategy.
We also need to make progress in risk assessment, which forms the core database for disaster management. It requires intense field studies and developing models using data on the frequency and severity of a particular type of natural hazard that strikes an area, and combining this with the nature and class of vulnerable structures. Powerful computing packages, involving GIS have to be developed not only to estimate the costs, but to generate different disaster mitigation scenarios or models using relevant post disaster investigative data.
Many local revenue divisions may already be involved in collecting this information. It is important to archive these data, for use in generating models. Such models, even if not the most accurate, need to be generated for every hazardous regions in this country, since they can provide for the scientific basis for fund allocation and deciding priorities. This database can then help develop an active online disaster information network which can be used in conjunction with current data.
The Nepal tragedy may also be seen as an opportunity for us all to do a rethinking of our past and embark on a new disaster management strategy for the ecologically fragile Himalayan region.
It is time that post-disaster investigative data collected in connection with the 2015 Nepal disaster be collated along with other archival data from earlier earthquakes in the Himalayan region to conceive a new disaster management strategy that can minimise the loss of lives and immovable property in the future.