The devastation during the 2013 Uttarakhand floods was headlined as a ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ in the media. Last month, the scale of destruction due to the massive earthquake in Nepal seemed to have left even the media persons hard-pressed. Words could hardly describe the human tragedy caused by the massive earthquake – the largest in 80 years to hit a notoriously vulnerable area, including the northern parts of India.
While India’s and the world’s focus now needs to be on providing urgent relief and rehabilitation of the affected population, it’s also time for a reality check. It was widely known that a major earthquake was about to strike the Himalayan kingdom, and its likely to happen again.
Media reports described how Nepal's Kathmandu valley is densely populated, seismically active and struggling to cope with weak infrastructure. Over the years, numerous studies, analyses and commentaries emphasised that a major disaster was highly probable in this very vulnerable region.
Experts will tell you the death and destruction in this highly vulnerable part of the world was very much the result of man’s quest and development choices as it was a geological occurrence. However, decades of substandard building practices and challenges in building code compliance are hard to overcome and cannot be undone or fixed overnight.
In recent years, the heavy influx of rural population to cities in countries like India and Nepal also put enormous pressures on the already creaking urban infrastructures.
As Stephen Alter writes in ‘Becoming a Mountain,’ a beautiful account of his personal journey through the Himalayas: “What made this (Uttarakhand) flood so catastrophic was the uncontrolled expansion of towns and settlements along the river banks. Over the past two decades, low-lying areas near the Ganga river were converted into yoga ashrams, eco-retreats, Vedic resorts and labour colonies…Added to this, the ever-increasing volume of pilgrim traffic has multiplied in recent years…In hindsight, a great deal might have been done to limit the damage and suffering, but the flood itself was as inevitable as earthquakes, a violent process that has, over countless epochs, created these valleys and sculpted the mountains.”
What the Nepal quake shows once again is the need for an urgent shift to ensure that development is risk-informed. India and it’s neighbouring countries desperately need to invest in both risk reduction and sustainable development as one and the same thing.