Author name: 
Saumya G Kutty has a M.A. in Natural Resource Management from GGS IP University, New Delhi and B.Sc in Physics from Delhi University. And also affiliated with the Indian Climate Research Network
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The Nepal earthquake that struck on 25 April 2015 measuring 7.8 was the worst earthquake since 1934 and resulted in widespread damage in Nepal and surrounding countries of the region. According to “Did You Feel It?” and the responses on the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website, tremors within India were felt as far and wide as Karnataka and Kerala. The Death toll in the quake crossed 8000 with as many as 17,866 injured and 366 still missing in Nepal. The ‘epicenter’ also called ‘focus’; the point on the earth’s surface directly above hypocenter (or the point of origin of the quake) was approximately 34km east-southeast of Lamjung. Nepal’s capital Kathmandu situated on a block of crust approximately 120 km (75 miles) wide and 60 km (37 miles) long, reportedly shifted 3 m (10 ft) to the south in just 30 seconds.

 

The earthquake, the result of the collision of the Indo-Australian plate with the Eurasian plate resulted in the rise of the Tibetan plateau and subduction of the Indian plate under it. The phenomenon is also responsible for the formation of the Himalayas and the ever increasing height of the Mt. Everest. The impact of this collision is still being felt with India moving several centimeters north each year creating an unstable fissure in the crust, known as the “Himalayan Frontal Thrust Fault”. This zone is highly unstable and has witnessed three major earthquakes during the past 100 years from west to east: the 1905 Kangra earthquake (Ms ~7.8), the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake (M = 7.7 + 0.2), and the 1950 Assam earthquake (Mw ~8.6). The magnitude 7.8 disaster on 25 April appears to overlap a segment that released an 8.1 magnitude quake in 1934.

 

Nepal is a poor country with a GDP estimated at 40.2 billion in 2013 and reliant heavily on remittances. Hence the socio-economic impact of the quakes is speculated to negatively impact the economy of the nation. The USGS estimates that the country has lost approximately 35 percent of its GDP to the disaster. Tourism in the country has been badly hit with centuries-old buildings, some of them UNESCO World Heritage sites destroyed. The Dharahara tower built in 1832 collapsed killing at least 180 people. Manakamana temple in Gorkha was also destroyed. It has also been speculated that in the aftermath of the disaster, survivors are at risk of being preyed upon by human traffickers operating in various South Asian countries.

 

The use of technology may emerge as a key to develop sustainable and disaster resistant infrastructure and planning. Technology plays a crucial role in terms of disaster management with satellite based Geographic Information System (GIS) and computer simulations providing for disaster mapping, vulnerability assessment and disaster response preparedness/planning. Europe’s Sentinel-1a satellite captured the before and after images of the earthquake struck regions in Nepal. These images were converted into an “interferogram” or a colorful and highly technical representation of the displacement that occurs on a fault. Scientists observed that in spite of the quake rupturing east from the epicenter the fault did not break the surface indicating built up pressure which might lead to potential earthquakes in the future. Ironically, the 7.3 magnitude earthquake experienced on 12 May 2015 had its epicenter 80km to the east-north-east of Kathmandu.

 

 

The scientific community seems to be reaching a consensus regarding the impact of climate change on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis among other disasters. While it is known that climate change makes systems vulnerable to disasters and more susceptible to resulting damage; many scientists agree that the shift in weight due to sea level rise and melting of glaciers etc can trigger an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the occurrence of which would otherwise be delayed.

 

As scientists debate over the probable causes leading to earthquakes; technology serves another role by means of assisting in relief and rehabilitation measures ranging from communication, transportation to medical facilities. In terms of disaster mitigation and preparedness as well as vulnerability assessment, technology can play an equally important role by constructing earthquake resistant buildings in areas with high seismic activity. However, technology without effective governance is of little use as utilization of manpower for disaster response, preparation of evacuation plans and carrying out drills etc as well as managing funds and other resources can only be achieved with effective governance.

 

The earthquake in Nepal can offer invaluable lessons for India. In spite of the repeated warnings given by scientists regarding an impending disaster on the lines of the 1934 earthquake and immediate assistance it received from countries all over the world; Nepal has grappled with the widespread damage and casualties in the face of the disaster. Being a poor economy, with most of the quake hit areas situated in remote, inaccessible regions; the impact was quite high. India has at least 38 cities in high risk seismic zones, with comparatively denser population and a similar quake could result in greater casualties if adequate measures are not taken immediately. The Gujarat earthquake in 2001, falling under seismic zone V killed around 20,000 people. Seismic zoning map by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) divides the Indian landmass into four seismic zones; I, II, III, IV and V in increasing order of seismic activity. Most of the buildings in these zones are not earthquake resistant as they hardly meet the “Indian Standard Criteria for Earthquake Resistant Design” prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in 1962; and therefore highly susceptible to damage. Public awareness regarding disaster preparedness and response plays a key role in minimizing casualties. Increasing the number of disaster response personnel and providing them with adequate training as well as carrying out drills is also crucial. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) following the Disaster Management Act, 2005 assembled the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) which consists of 10 battalions of Central Armed Police Forces stationed across the country as shown in map below.

 

 

NDRF has so far saved over 133,192 human lives and retrieved 276 dead bodies of disaster victims in 73 response operations in the country to disasters ranging from cyclones, landslides, earthquakes notably, in recent times, the Kashmir floods, Cyclone Hudhud and Pune landslide. The force undergoes extensive training for CBRN or Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear defense alongwith Heli-borne, flood as well as search and rescue training.

 

Another important aspect pertains to the post disaster relief and rehabilitation measures as well as ensuring clear guidelines for effective and quick compensation to victims. Health and hygiene post disaster and mechanisms to ensure a crime free environment are crucial to avoid chaos in the aftermath of the disaster. Strengthening the scientific base by means of technology enhancement will also serve the country well.  Information technology can play an important role by means of GIS based monitoring and prediction systems as well as internet based tools. The IDRN (India Disaster Response Network) is a nation-wide electronic inventory of essential and specialist resources for disaster response, covering specialist equipment, specialist manpower resources and critical supplies. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has joined hands in this effort of Government of India and is implementing GoI-UNDP Disaster Risk Management (DRM) program in 169 most vulnerable districts of 17 states in India. Last, but not the least; developing disaster relief interventions for quick response and minimizing damage post disaster including spectrometry kits, bio-aerosol detectors, radiation leak detectors etc to name a few will ensure safety to both victims and disaster personnel.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.