ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ancient Risks, Current Challenges in the Himalayas

In the face of climate change, disaster risk management must drive development and not vice versa. Seismic tremors, surface slippage of fragile sedimentary soils generating landslides, monsoon weather and cyclonic storms producing massive run-off are all relatively well understood, inherent to the Himalayan region, and by and large predictable. Yet governments, communities and international agencies repeatedly appear to have been "taken by surprise" when each of these occurs. What needs to be understood is that systems of mitigation and response are at the very foundation of economic development, built into the understanding of disasters.

Formal reconstruction efforts began and thousands of Nepalis remained at risk after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in 2015, which destroyed lives, homes and livelihoods. Just two years prior to that, flash floods induced by heavy monsoon rains and high-altitude landslides washed away thousands of residents and religious pilgrims in the Kedar Valley of Uttarakhand. In September 2011, a major earthquake shook Sikkim, destroying some 12,500 homes and blocking roadways with hundreds of landslides. Two years before that, in May 2009, cyclone Aila made its landfall at the Bay of Bengal, devastating Bangladesh and West Bengal and triggering fatal landslides in Darjeeling town.

As the pattern of large-scale tragedies combining geomorphological and meteorological shocks continues across the Himalayas, we must ask whether we—as a society—are responding commensurately, and with the necessary knowledge, tools and institutions. Neither seismic nor climate-induced disasters can truly be described as surprises. The natural drivers are well-known: seismic tremors, surface slippage of fragile sedimentary soils generating landslides, monsoon weather and cyclonic storms producing massive run-off. These are all relatively well-understood, inherent to the region, and predictable, in general, though not specific terms. Underlying aetiologies such as tectonic shifts and climate change are difficult to study, but the outlines are clear. Yet, governments, communities and international agencies repeatedly appear to be “surprised.”

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