Saturday, October 31, 2015

Afghanistan-Pakistan earthquake raises questions of India's preparedness for natural disasters

By Rohini Mohan, ET Bureau 

BENGALURU: On Monday, when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Afghanistan and Pakistan, and parts of Delhi shuddered, India's readiness for disaster came into question again. Once again, seismologists conjured up the image of the Delhi secretariat sinking into its foundation. It's an alarming image, but not an improbable one. 

Based on available data, seismologists across the world have been expecting a great earthquake for over 500 years now along the 400km faultline under the Himalayas, but are uncertain when this will happen. That it will affect Delhi, Dehradun, large parts of north India or the northeast states, and cause massive damage and loss of lives is, however, certain. And yet, India has a long way to go to mitigate those risks. 

"It's a relatively young region, still forming, and a lot of tectonic stress is caused by all this activity," says Vineet Gahalaut, director of National Centre for Seismology. "This is what makes the Himalayas so earthquake-prone." There have been several earthquakes, the last damaging one was in Kangra in 1905. 

April's double earthquakes in Nepal of 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale was two points away from being a "great" earthquake. Several studies including from the Tectonics Observatory at Caltech, USA, and Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research found that it only released some built-up strain in the plates. Yet, it was devastating and recorded the largest death toll in Nepal and India of over 8,500 people. 

Seismologist Gahalaut asks: "What if it were to happen around a city like Delhi or Shimla, with its unauthorised colonies, hospitals and schools unscientifically built and not resistant to the slightest quake?" 

Planned preparedness began in India only in 2005. After the 2001 Bhuj earthquake and 2004 tsunami, the Indian government set up the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to make guidelines for disaster awareness and risk mitigation, and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), for emergency response. 13 NDRF battalions are now stationed across the country, mobilised from existing paramilitary forces and trained in rescue, emergency medicine, paramedical help and relief distribution. " They're the ones you saw working in the Kashmir and Uttarakhand floods, and reaching Nepal in 4 hours after the earthquake," says Kamal Kishore, member of the NDMA. "NDRF has made a lot of progress, but to really reduce damage, India requires more." 

Disaster preparedness is about emergency response and risk mitigation. "In a way, India's good response to the Nepal earthquake was not so good for our plans to prepare for future hazards," Hari Kumar, director of Delhi-based Geo Hazards South Asia, says. "It gave us a false sense of security. The truth is we have a long way to go." 

Even if one dismissed worries of a great earthquake, about 85% of the country is still vulnerable to some hazard - not only earthquake, but also cyclone, flood, drought or landslide. Of 29 states, 22 are disaster-prone. In the last 10 years, there have been 179 natural disasters, more than 14.3 million people have been affected, including 26,718 dead and over 8.9 million rendered homeless. "And yet, we think disasters happen to others," says PG Dhar Chakrabarti, former director of National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) and senior fellow at TERI. 

"A central response force is great, but it cannot reach every place there is a crisis," says Krishna Vatsa, a disaster-risk reduction advisor with the UNDP. Local level infrastructure is thus crucial in disaster prone areas. District-level Emergency Operation Centres must be set up, equipped with medical staff, hygiene packets, water purifying tablets, satellite phones, and tarpaulinsBSE 0.00 %. Care India's CEO Rajan Bahadur says that today only a handful of states - including Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi - have functioning State Disaster Management Authorities. 

Most urgently, experts say India must invest in damage prevention. India's seismic Zone 4 and 5 -- including Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, Srinagar, Patna and the mountain belt — are home to some of the densest cities on earth. NDMA projects that an 8 magnitude earthquake could kill 10 lakh people in Chandigarh, and at least 8 lakh in a city in the northeast. 

Earthquakes can't be predicted yet, but their damage can be reduced. "We must invest in retrofitting existing buildings to be earthquake resistant, and strictly enforce building codes on new construction," says TERI's Chakrabarti. 

As India urbanises rapidly, our dense cities are the most vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. Solutions for reducing risk already exist, experts say. It is now about strict enforcement.

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