Nepal | February 18, 2020

Cascading hazards: Need to focus on research

Dipendra Gautam

We seriously lack extensive and cutting-edge researches in the country. And the uncaring attitude towards research findings makes things more difficult when it comes to dealing with disasters

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

The floods in 2017 hit many districts of Nepal just as the country was struggling to come to terms with the devastation caused by the Gorkha Earthquake in 2015.

Nepal is prone to various types of natural hazards, which at times cause unimaginable losses. Most of human settlements in the country are in the state of “high vulnerability” and the proportion of the
devastations such natural disasters bring is beyond imagination until they strike us.

The National Planning Commission estimated that the flood damage in 2017 amounted to $584.7 million. The earthquakes in 2015 caused damage worth $7 billion.

I had collaborated with You Dong in a research work after the 2017 floods in central Nepal, considering the Khimti neighbourhood of Ramechhap as the case study area, in a bid to understand the various aspects associated with the natural disaster.

The research findings note that once flood trails the earthquake, the damage occurrence in constructed facilities including the residential buildings is up to 300 per cent of the quake damage. The anatomy further outlines that other Asian counterparts are facing lesser challenges of damage when compared to similar structural forms, at least in terms of collapse of buildings. Fairly, there is momentous necessity of defocusing.

Where has been our focus then? The focus is actually nowhere until the country experiences another severe natural hazard. Why buildings after the earthquakes, funded by the government or other organisations, are still being constructed in the conventional way and tagged with the fashionable phrase “earthquake resistant”?

After every notable earthquake, the seismic region should revise the seismic code. But what did we do until the Gorkha earthquake struck the country in 2015, almost 80 years after the last massive quake in 1934?

Actually, Nepal adopted band-based technology. It should be clearly noted and understood that the same was advised by the Calcutta-based engineers as mentioned by Brahma Shamsher Rana in his famous collection “The Great Earthquake of Nepal 1934”. This means we were on the same advancement as that in 1934 and largely remained silent until the quake hit the country 80 years later.

Setting the scene is very easy. For example, after the 1934 earthquake, there were notable and devastating earthquakes in 1965, 1980, 1988 and 2011.

The 1993 landslides and almost every monsoon hazards, including the 2014 Jure landslide, and the aggravated impacts of the 2015 earthquake in the same locations are some of the areas where it seems we failed to put our focus on.

Of late, compounding is very common. The unrepaired buildings of the Khimti neighbourhood, which was our case study area, were damaged by the Gorkha earthquake, vanished or became inhabitable. Imagine that cascading hazards—a hazard triggered by another one—become common due to the geo-seismo-societal setting.

In Khimti, after the 2017 flash flood, road network, electricity supply system, bridge and irrigation canals were wiped out. Meanwhile, the structural losses and casualties were also notable. This infers that the vicious cycle of damage is more dominant now and become inconceivable when a natural hazard is followed by another, even of minor to moderate scale.

Nepal hence needs to defocus on the priorities. We seriously lack extensive and cutting-edge researches in the country. And the uncaring attitude towards research findings makes things more difficult.

Failure to pay attention to research findings is more hazardous in the long run. For instance, a recent book “Impacts and Insights of the Gorkha Earthquake” highlights that the lessons of the damage were underestimated even after the major earthquakes since 1833. Moreover, other scholarly publications suggest serious and major revisions of the building codes, but the recommendations of the researchers are considered just a “scholastic” show—“impractical and romantic” to Nepal.

In Nepal, we largely believe that “paradigm shift” is not made for us and we can’t afford such shifts. But, it is worthy to note that safety of individuals, societies and the country is of utmost concern. Hence the government needs to make big investments in risk reduction. To be precise, big investments are needed in the scholarly cutting-edge researches so that we can ensure safety to the countrymen.

To sum up, Nepal is the 20th most multi-hazard prone country. The country’s vulnerability to disasters is due rugged and fragile geophysical structure, very high peaks, high angle of slopes, complex geology, variable climatic conditions, active tectonic processes, unplanned settlement, increasing population, weak economic condition and low literacy rate among others.

It should be noted that the frequency of multi-hazards, either independent or cascading, would accelerate in the future. The losses could go exponentially high due to the exposure level and inherent vulnerabilities attributed to our practices. Acting locally to cope with natural hazards demands local researches. Thus, adopting the findings beyond the border may not be wise always. The ideal resolution would be to invest in researches.

Gautam is a researcher in multi-hazard vulnerability and sustainability of structures and lifelines


A version of this article appears in print on March 15, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.

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