Disaster strikes

Disaster strikes

The 6.9 earthquake in the Himalayan region has caused considerable damage in Sikkim and Nepal. Although the loss of life might be low when compared with other major earthquakes that have rocked South Asia in the recent past, the difficult terrain and physical inaccessibility of the areas worst hit will complicate rescue and relief efforts.

Some of the areas that were badly jolted in Sikkim, for instance, are remote villages that lack roads at the best of times. With landslides and rubble blocking the few available roads, it will be several days before officials and rescue teams will be able to reach the isolated villages. It is likely therefore that the full extent of the human casualties, currently at over 70, and damage to property and livelihood is yet to unfold. The affected region is one that suffers extreme winters. Reconstruction work will have to begin quickly as winter is round the corner. Temporary housing will not protect the people from an icy winter.

More than the quakes it is poor construction of buildings that result in more casualties during an earthquake. In several parts of the Himalayas, people have built their homes drawing on traditional wisdom and indigenous techniques. This and the use of materials like bamboo and wood are found to make homes more resistant to earthquakes. When the earth shook on Sunday, these buildings rattled and swayed but didn’t collapse into a heap of rubble. Unfortunately, increasingly in the Himalayan regions as elsewhere in the country, people are abandoning traditional methods of construction for more ‘modern’ ones. 

While the government has done well to set up a National Disaster Management Authority aimed at ensuring swift response when disaster strikes, its approach is top-down. It borrows technologies from abroad that don’t always suit our environment. This is unfortunate especially since there is plenty of indigenous or native wisdom on how to prevent or respond to natural disasters. This wisdom is an asset that disaster management strategies must draw on.

Tribal communities in the Andamans survived the tsunami because their own existing ‘warning systems’ worked well. Traditional houses of wood and stone survived the Uttarkashi earthquake a few years ago. Earthquakes cannot be prevented but we can at least construct our buildings in a way that they don’t pose danger when the disaster strikes.

Perhaps the damage in Sunday’s quake could have been lower had authorities learnt lessons from Uttarkashi and discouraged the construction of ‘modern’ buildings in the mountains.

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