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  • Shona L. van Zijll de Jong

Part I: Acknowledging that the Plates were Locked and Loaded - The 2015 Gorkha-Nepal Earthquake was

Nepal Earthquake: A Humanitarian Disaster


As the death toll from Saturday’s devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal continues to rise, we’re reading about the health threat facing survivors.

In addition to the injured, an estimated 2.8 million people have been displaced by the earthquake as many are afraid to return to their homes.

The United Nations (UN) has launched an urgent appeal for $415 million to reach over 8 million people with life-saving assistance and protection over the next three months.

Its report offers insight into the scale of the unfolding humanitarian disaster:

According to initial estimations and based on the latest earthquake intensity mapping, over 8 million people are affected in 39 of Nepal’s 75 districts. Over 2 million people live in the 11 most critically hit districts.”

The government estimates that over 70,000 houses have been destroyed, Over 3,000 schools are located in the 11 most severely affected districts. Up to 90 percent of health facilities in rural areas have been damaged. Hospitals in district capitals, including Kathmandu, are overcrowded and lack medical supplies and capacity.”

Strong tremors have damaged infrastructure, including bridges and roads and telecommunications systems. Transport of fresh water has been interrupted and fuel is running low in many areas.

The UN also reports that an estimated 3.5 million people are in need of food assistance, of which 1.4 million need priority assistance, while 4.2 million are urgently in need of water, sanitation and hygiene support.

While it’s far too early to know if these estimates will hold, clearly the Nepal earthquake is as catastrophe modeling firm RMS says: “shaping up to be the worst natural disaster this calendar year, particularly because Nepal is remote, economically challenged, and not resilient to an earthquake of this magnitude.”

Indeed, the earthquake is expected to inflict at least $5 billion in total economic losses – that’s more than 20 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product – and could end up exceeding the country’s GDP.

Not surprisingly, insurance penetration in what is one of the world’s poorest nations is extremely low...

Preliminary Analysis of the Impact of the 2015 Gorkha-Nepal Earthquake

Based on field experience in several post-hazard events, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, reconnaissance teams – the Samoa Tsunami 2009, Canterbury Earthquake 2010, Christchurch Earthquake 2011, Australia Brisbane Floods 2011 – I suggest that the above quotation aptly captures the international response to a “typical” newsworthy earthquake. It contains:

a) urgent appeal for disaster relief funds to feed, shelter, bathe, and provide medical care to those affected by an earthquake;

b) economic and financial analysts’ documentation of damages to buildings and the environment (houses, critical lifelines – bridges, electricity, telecommunication, energy, roads, etc); and

c) geoscientists collecting data about the earthquake and its aftershocks, interpreting and communicating the data, and the risks it may pose to public health and safety (van Zijll de Jong and Redstone 2010).

Two key phrases from this quote: "…total economic losses [from the 25 April Earthquake] could end up exceeding the country’s GDP” and the “latest earthquake intensity mapping. ..strong tremors” suggest discipline specific contributions detailing the impact of the 2015 Gorkha-Nepal Earthquake event.

I am also aware that economic/financial analysts and geoscientists tend to use the same terms - hazard, risk, disaster, and catastrophe - to suggest how local communities have been impacted by hazard events. Geoscientists have extensively documented that aftershocks often follow a big event, whereas economic/financial analysts often estimate financial damage and loss statements based on one big event (van Zijll de Jong et al 2011a; 2011b). As will be subsequently discussed, geoscientists who have been in the field days after a hazard event may be unsettled by the phrase “natural disaster”: they recognize disasters are the result of human processes interacting with geological processes; and their field training has taken far beyond introductory geoscience undergraduate courses which emphasize fundamental geologic cycle concepts and the linkages between plate tectonic processes to natural hazards (volcanoes and earthquakes).

This commentary has two parts. The first focuses on hazard risk science process and priorities: geoscientists collect data about the earthquake, interpret the data and communicate the analysis of the data and future risks the hazard event may pose to the public. The second focuses on thinking through how geoscientists - in their communication to local and international governments, funding agencies and the media - can advocate on behalf of those exposed to post event disaster risk.

Locked and Loaded: Disaster Hotspot

The article Major earthquake hits Nepal (published in Nature two days after the 25 April 2015 event) highlights ongoing disaster risk reduction science and seismotectonic research projects: Seismologists from around the world have been warning local, regional and international agencies that Nepal’s crustal stresses are building up. Furthermore, the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal in Sainbu and GeoHazards International have been working on long running risk reduction projects in Kathmandu: building earthquake hazard risk assessments and disaster risk management plans were based on scenarios similar to the 1934 Nepal-Bihar disaster (Witze 2015).

Some 80 years after the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake, and prior to April 2015, many studies have shown that the Himalayas and surrounding area face increased risk of a major earthquake. The studies cited below have been published online and many are readily available to nongovernment organizations, industry, research institutions, governments and academics. These are:

  • The rapid drift of the Indian tectonic plate is a 2007 study published in Nature led by the Indian-German team.

  • The 2012 Greater India Basin hypothesis and a two-stage Cenozoic collision between India and Asia is published in the USA Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • The 2014 study Estimating the return times of great Himalayan earthquakes in Eastern Nepal: evidence from the Patu and Bardibas strands of the Main Frontal Thrust is published by the Journal of Geophysical Research

  • The 2015 Medieval pulse of great earthquakes in the central Himalaya: Viewing past activities on the frontal thrust is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in March.

These studies reveal three important points about the role of geoscientists before, during and after an hazard event. To begin with, geoscientists broadly acknowledge that Nepal is a “disaster hotspot.” Nepal is in a landlocked position - bordered by China in the north, and India (east, south and west), experiencing exponential urbanization (yet generally disregarding earthquake-resistant measures in building construction); is in an active seismic belt facing extreme weather events, and has steep and rugged topography. These unique geological, geographical and climatological conditions increase disaster risk for the local population.

In addition, improved seismotectonic understanding of the Himalaya and vicinity has been somewhat integrated into Nepal’s disaster risk reduction strategy. Hazard research has focused on the potential impact of hazards associated with geological events; provided some analysis of the risks related to the changing land use patterns and changing environmental conditions (leading to landslide, liquefaction, avalanches); and highlighted dimensions of physical, social and economic vulnerabilities in hazard prone areas. Natural hazard risk assessments, therefore, can be utilized to provide scientific insight into the risks and vulnerabilities are associated with a location, allowing communities to move towards a culture of prevention. Humans can prevent a natural hazard from becoming a disaster. Likely some Earth scientists recall some cartoon images from Earth science textbooks graphically illustrating how the South Asian subcontinent is colliding with Asia, creating the Himalayan mountains; and causing frequent large earthquakes (1934 Nepal-Bihar, 1950 Upper Assam, and the 1905 Kangra) as well as numerous smaller ones. However, the case study of Nepal illustrates that despite all the high quality hazard science, humans have not prevented this natural hazard from becoming a disaster.

Finally, since the 2015 Gorkha-Nepal Earthquake, geoscientists from the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, GeoHazards International, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and other research institutions have been tasked with collecting post hazard event data, making formal assessments of the possible future events and subsequent risks. Significant contributions to hazard science will be made through post-event reconnaissance studies which continue to advance hazard science.

For example, loss of life, lack of medical supplies, loss of transportation and electricity, loss of access to water, food, shelter, and many other consequences are being qualitatively and quantitatively documented by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS has been using the PAGER economic damage service to calculate the impact of the 2015 Gorkha-Nepal Earthquake (USGS 2105). The data available at this site suggests that the numbers continue to increase as children, women and men struggle to cope with the devastated infrastructure and the aftershocks, barely supported by a humanitarian relief system strained beyond capacity. It is unclear how the death toll will rise in the next months. It is evident that disaster risk is contributing to increasing damages and losses in Nepal.

In one way, the USGS is learning from such events. The USGS is moving forward with innovative research and monitoring to better characterize hazards and their impacts. In another, I wonder how many Earth scientists link the impact of a natural hazard to a specific context; or unravel how human activities aggravate hazard risk (i.e. follow the human response to the event, evaluating what went well and what went wrong).

A glance at the 2015 World Fact Book of the United States Central Intelligence Agency for Nepal - detailing the geography, people and society, government, economy, energy, communications, transportation, military and transnational issues – shows the vulnerability of rural and urban population (CIA 2015). It is worth recalling that Nepal is the 16th poorest country in the world - ranked by average national income per capita. Despite significant progress in terms of hazard science, emergency and response preparedness planning, many affected by the earthquake will become even more vulnerable.

Find Part II of this post on the CFES Blog Monday May 25.

Part II will address:

Was this hazard event a natural disaster?

How can geoscientists advocate for those who continue to be exposed to hazard risk?

Shona is involved in risk based land use planning in Canada (Geological Survey of Canada, Laurentian University, Canada); and natural hazard disaster risk management projects (New Zealand, Samoa, and Australia). She has two decades experience in global environmental change and sustainable development projects Southern Africa).

Please the list of references in this post here. Views expressed in blog posts reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the CFES.

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