Trouble with tremorsSouth Asia needs a regional framework on earthquake data exchange and information sharing
Seismically, South Asia is one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the globe. Six out of eight countries in the region—Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh—are located within the most seismically active Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) belt. Parts of the Indian peninsula and the Indian island territory of Andaman and Nicobar have major seismogenic faults. The remaining two countries, Sri Lanka and Maldives, are vulnerable to tsunamigenic earthquakes. Large parts of the coastal areas of Bangla-desh, India, and Pakistan are equally vulnerable to underwater earthquakes originating in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
The 1905 Kangra earthquake, 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake, 2001 Bhuj earthquake, 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, and 2005 Kashmir earthquake are some fatal disasters witnessed by the region. Since 1900, South Asia has witnessed 109 devastating earthquakes, which have killed 278,927 people, incurring economic losses equivalent to $13.2 billion.
Need to cooperate
Disasters do not obey political boundaries. For example, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake brought massive devastation in Pakistan and India. Altogether, the earthquake killed about 73,380 people in Pakistan, 1,360 in India, and four in Afghanistan, leaving thousands of people injured. Similarly, the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake caused enormous human casualties and loss to the economies of both Nepal and India. These disasters revealed a wide gap in regional cooperation to build resilience and capacity from regional to the community level among South Asian countries for better preparedness and response.
Since the establishment of Saarc, there have been rigorous discussions on disaster risk reduction among member states. As a result, in 2005, a Saarc Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management was drafted, which is aligned with the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015. Besides this, a remarkable agreement, Saarc Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disaster was also signed by member states in 2011. Its implementation is expected to provide a coordinated and planned approach to response and relief activities.
Understanding the risks
Earthquakes are very peculiar, as they have a very short onset time and yet cause widespread damage. Worse still, there is no reliable way to predict them. Unlike some other disasters, they can induce multiple hazards, like flood, ground deformation, structural collapse, liquefaction, landslide, and fire, and demands coordinated planning for recovery.
Earthquake risk management is a multi-stage process that comprises risk assessment, risk mitigation, response, preparedness, recovery, and reconstruction. Nepal, India, and Pakistan have developed expertise in different areas of earthquake risk management. This knowledge can be harnessed to develop better resilience in the region. South Asia, through the Saarc Disaster Management Centre, should initiate a collaborative risk assessment through leading earthquake science and risk assessment institutions.
To begin with, as the entire HKH region is speckled with several seismic gaps, there should be a precise ground response analysis and seismic hazard assessment on a regional scale for better understanding of inherited risk.
Monitoring of seismic events is particularly important to develop an attenuation model to understand how seismic energy decreases with a particular geological formation. Currently, Nepal, India, and Pakistan have a number of seismic observatories to monitor seismic events. However, the density of such observatories is not enough to predict the hazard level precisely. Strengthening of existing observatories in member states and their network is required, at least in the HKH region, to expedite data sharing during disasters.
Furthermore, even as there are many researches on seismology and earthquake geology in South Asia, there are still many areas that we have yet to understand in terms of earthquake-generating faults and historical earthquakes. In addition, paleoseismological and geophysical characteristics of seismogenic zones across national boundaries are still unknown. Collaborative research, therefore, involving leading academic institutions should be carried out in order to estimate seismic hazard. This would help immensely in estimating the damage potential due to a distant earthquake. Arrangements should be made for training opportunities and exchange of fellowships to facilitate cross-fertilisation of ideas.
Data on the location of the epicentre and its magnitude is very important for timely damage assessment and response. Till date, South Asia has no regional framework on earthquake data exchange. A lack of such a framework hampers the deployment of relief and rescue teams, particularly during trans-boundary events as during the 2011 Nepal-Sikkim border earthquake. Therefore, we should develop data exchange frameworks to share near real-time data with neighbouring countries to expedite response.
As the risk posed by earthquakes is interlinked with poverty, demographic pressure, environment, and underdevelopment, the costs of ignoring earthquake risk challenges have far-reaching social and economic consequences. So transnational coordination, cooperation and support is of the utmost necessity. Nepal, as Saarc Chair, should take initiation to formulate a regional policy with firm commitment to comprehensive earthquake risk management.
Chamlagain is a former disaster management expert at New Delhi-based Saarc Disaster Management Centre (firstname.lastname@example.org)