Such messages teach us how to keep hazards away from people (reducing existing risks) as well as how to keep people away from hazards (avoid creating new risks). On my latest trip to Japan, we hosted government officials from Armenia, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan as part of an experts’ visit focusing on disaster risk management, acting on Japan’s rich culture of passing on such decisive messages to future generations.
Since October 29, 2015, Central Asia experienced fifteen earthquakes of moment magnitude 5.0 or greater, which on average amounts to an earthquake every 6 days. Among these events are two notable ones that occurred on December 7th and 25th of 2015. The first earthquake was a 7.2 magnitude event in Murghob district of Tajikistan.
This was the largest earthquake in the country since the 1949 Khait earthquake and it brought widespread damage throughout the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan's largest province located in the Pamir mountains. Losses consisted of 2 fatalities caused by landslides, multiple injuries, complete or partial destruction of over 650 houses and 15 schools and kindergartens, damages to several health centers and a small hydroelectric power station, and loss of livestock. Estimates suggest that 4,000 people have been displaced and over 124,000 were affected by the earthquake, leaving many people homeless over the harsh winter period.
It has been exactly three months since the Nepal earthquake first struck and one month since the donor conference. The humanitarian phase is nearing its end, the international presence is starting to move onto the next crisis, and high level international dignitaries have now returned to their capitals. The earthquake is no longer making headline news and the government is getting back to business as usual, albeit with the huge challenge of rebuilding.
Now is time to take stock of the events from the past three months. During a crisis, there is no time for those involved to look back at what has been accomplished. What matters is the next immediate action and challenge to overcome. Last week, in the Bank headquarters, our management and some members of the earthquake response team presented the progress achieved thus far to an overcrowded room. This was my first opportunity to reflect on the disaster and I was almost overcome with emotion. Be they senior government officials, the Bank’s country office team, first- emergency responders, or Nepalis, it is difficult to articulate just what folks have overcome in Nepal.
When disaster strikes, air transport is often the only feasible mode of transportation for first responders and urgently needed relief supplies. Following an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, most roads, rail tracks and even ports become unusable, as they are blocked for days by debris. Airports, on the other hand, are remarkably sustainable and, within hours, usually become operational again.
The main reason of this sustainability is that runways are on open space where debris of a disaster can be removed quickly. Furthermore, a runway usually suffers remarkable little damage even by a strong earthquake, such as experienced last week in Nepal or in Haiti in 2010. And even if there are cracks and holes in the runway, modern relief aircraft like C-130s can operate safely for some time.
However, the challenges of operating relief flights can quickly become overwhelming, especially for airports in developing countries that usually experience only moderate traffic. In Haiti, for example, more than 74 aircraft landed on a single day following the earthquake to unload supplies. Such traffic poses risks in the air; air traffic control, often hampered by inadequate or damaged surveillance installations, can’t cope managing all arriving aircraft. On the ground, where tarmac and taxiways are small, congestion quickly reigns which prevents the arrival of more flights.
World Champion boxer Manny Pacquiao is a living icon in the Philippines, his legendary battles are well known and brought him considerable fame. This fame and recognition is being used by the Philippine government (through Project NOAH) to save lives and minimize losses from disasters—where an infographic gradient links flood depth to Pacquiao’s famous height. In other words, to encourage adoption of early warning advisories and make flood hazard projections more interesting, yellow colors on interactive flood hazard maps equate to flood levels up to Pacquiao’s knees, while a dangerous, bright red color corresponds to high flood levels that are taller than Pacquiao himself.
In early 2014 I saw a video circulated by a colleague, wherein someone from Japan had put together all the earthquakes that struck Japan between January 2011 to September 2011, essentially capturing the early tremors, the Great Tohoku earthquake of March 11, 2011 and subsequent aftershocks. It was a compelling visual which brought home the sheer intensity of the earthquake event. While the video was a visual representation of an event, could the same concept be used to create a product that could become a tool for raising awareness to a serious issue?
The Story of One Thousand Earthquakes
Over a one-year period from May 2013 to May 2014, there were a total of 1,247 recorded earthquake events of 4.0 magnitude or higher. It's time to get prepared.
With over 600 million people living along the fault-line across the Himalayan belt, South Asia’s earthquake exposure is very high. To further compound the problem, South Asia is urbanizing at a rapid pace and a significant growth in mega-cities, secondary and tertiary cities / towns is happening in high risk seismic zones. The region has experienced three large events over the past 15 years, the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, the Sumatra earthquake of 2004 (leading to the Asian tsunami) and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. While there have been no major earthquakes these past 9 years, the region is akin to a ticking bomb for an earthquake disaster. Keeping this in mind, we mapped a region of 3000 Km radius from the center of India and analyzed earthquake events over a one-year period from May 2013 to May 2014. Only those earthquakes recorded by the United States Geological Survey’s global earthquake monitoring database (USGS) greater than 4.0 magnitude on the Richter scale were considered. We found a total of 1,247 recorded earthquake events. The story of a 1000 earthquakes was born and was a story that needed to be told.
We decided to create a video that would become an awareness tool and effectively communicate the risk the region faces. We deliberately steered away from talking about work being undertaken to reduce seismic risks or policy mechanisms that can be adopted. There are other mechanisms, mediums and opportunities to take that agenda forward. This is a short 90 seconds video and hopefully communicates the urgency of investing resources and efforts into earthquake safety. Increase the volume, enjoy, get scared. and then be prepared!
Bangladesh, the most vulnerable country in the world to the impact of natural disasters is also a leader in emergency preparedness and disaster response, particularly for cyclones, tidal surges and floods. This was achieved through 25 years of effort, which was catalyzed through two devastating cyclones, one in 1970 and 1991 that caused the deaths of approximately 500,000 and 300,000 people respectively. Part of what makes Bangladesh so strong at cyclone preparedness and response is the fact that major cyclones seem to hit Bangladesh every 3-4 years. Recurrence of this frequency is quite unique.
On the other hand, major seismic events that lead to major losses occur infrequently. Cities like Dhaka and Kathmandu, which are susceptible to major earthquakes, haven’t experienced a major shake in more than a generation. Unfortunately, a lack of frequency often leads to complacency amongst governments and citizens. Even more problematic is the very rapid accumulation of assets and population in urban environments in South Asia, including Dhaka.
Walking through the streets of Dhaka paints a picture of a city with significant structural vulnerabilities – where poor construction standards, lack of enforcement, and poor maintenance turn many buildings into potential hazards. When a building in Savar collapsed in April 2013 – killing over 1,100 people and injuring thousands more – it was a wakeup call for Bangladesh. The collapse was not triggered by an earthquake, it was the result of catastrophic structural failures, but it was a glimpse into what could happen in the event of a major earthquake.
I will never forget October 8, 2005, a day that changed my life forever as it did for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.
I remember my house shaking violently like never before and my instinctive reaction to get myself and my family to safety outside the house. This was an earthquake that felt distinctly different from others. Things were shaking and moving too much and for too long. When we started seeing plumes of smoke rising from where a high rise apartment building had once stood, we knew this was really bad. Watching the terrified look of affected people on TV shook me inside and forced me to think about difference I could make. When I went back to my job and my life, the question kept nagging at me. When I was presented with the opportunity to work on the earthquake reconstruction project for the World Bank, I took it and have never looked back.
When a disaster strikes, such as a hurricane or a major earthquake, relief efforts are often hampered by destroyed or damaged ground infrastructure, mostly roads, bridges, and railway networks. In the days following such a disaster, relief efforts hinge on air transport capacity, which only depends on a clear runway or landing sites for helicopters. First responders, who focus on saving lives, are primarily aviation units of the armed forces or law enforcement.