S. Asia should prepare now for next disaster

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The World Bank estimates that every dollar invested in disaster prevention saves $4 in disaster damage

About 9,000 lives have been lost in the devastating earthquake in Nepal on April 25 and the powerful aftershock on May 12. A conference in Kathmandu on June 25 will bring Nepal together with its international partners to rebuild the country and make it better and safer.

Unfortunately, this is not a challenge only for Nepal. From Afghanistan to Bangladesh, much of South Asia is located in one of the highest seismically active regions in the world. More than 600 million people live along the fault-line across the Himalayan belt that runs through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan.

The earthquake threat in South Asia is generated by the collision among three tectonic plates. The Indian plate is moving northward at a speed of about five centimetres a year. In doing so, it collides with the Eurasian Plate. Owing to this, the Himalayan mountains are forced upwards and a large number of earthquakes are generated. This has been happening for millions of years.

Over the past 100 years, several major earthquakes have occurred in the region — Bihar-Nepal in 1934, Makran in 1945, Assam in 1950, Latur in 1993, Bhuj in 2001, Pakistan in 2005 and Nepal in 2015.  Just focussing on the big earthquakes, however, can obscure the real picture. South Asia is constantly beset by tremors. The World Bank recently analysed earthquake events over a one-year period from May 2013 to May 2014 that impacted the South Asia region. Only considered were those earthquakes recorded by the United States Geological Survey’s global earthquake monitoring database (USGS) greater than 4.0 magnitude on the Richter scale. The tally totalled 1,247 recorded earthquake events.

South Asia may have had earthquakes for millions of years, but the difference today is that more and more people are living in the earthquake zone, often crowded into rapidly growing cities. Much of this booming urbanisation in high-risk seismic zones includes everything from mega-cities to secondary and tertiary cities to towns.

No one can predict when or where the next earthquake will happen. But what we do know is that there are many measures countries can take to protect their citizens against the next natural disaster. The next big earthquake need not become the South Asian mega-disaster of the 21st Century.

Among the measures countries can take are building resilient housing, improving building codes, and strengthening critical infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, bridges, dams, key road infrastructure, public buildings, and so on. Strengthening disaster response mechanisms and providing better search and rescue equipment and training to first responders is critical. This also includes having contingency planning and systems set up to hand out food to the vulnerable and offer vaccinations to halt diseases that inevitably spread in the aftermath of a disaster.

I specifically want to highlight the importance of strengthening schools. The Nepal earthquake caused the collapse of more than 5,000 classrooms. The earthquake struck on a Saturday when schools were closed. Had it struck on a weekday, the lives lost and the devastation could have been far worse. Making schools safe for our children should become a priority across the region.

These things sound like they cost a lot of money. But not doing them can cost even more. This cost goes beyond the tragic loss of lives.

The World Bank estimates that every dollar invested in disaster prevention saves $4 in disaster damage. A single large disaster can cost between three and six per cent of a developing country’s economic output. This can wipe out years of development progress that a country has worked hard to achieve. In Nepal, it was the poor that suffered the most from the earthquake.

Now is the time to invest in disaster resilience. This should be done across all sectors including transport, energy, agriculture, education, health, gender, housing and livelihoods.

South Asia should prepare for the next disaster now.

  (Annette Dixon is vice-president for the South Asia Region of the World Bank.)

Strengthening disaster response mechanisms and providing better search and rescue equipment

is critical

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