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Sunday, 10 May 2015

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The recent earthquakes in Nepal and PNG have once again demonstrated how vulnerable we are in the face of nature's fury. The Nepal earthquake was especially devastating, killing nearly 8,000 people and thousands remain unaccounted for. Nepal sits right where the Indo-Australian Plate is pushing itself beneath the Eurasian Plate, a collision that gave rise to the Himalayan Mountains. As the plates push, pressure builds, eventually resulting in a quake to relieve that pressure. Matters worsened because Nepal is a landlocked country with only road and air access and the mountainous terrain in most areas makes it nearly impossible to reach and engage in relief work.

The South Asian response to the Nepal earthquake was swift and generous. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in the world to respond to the disaster, sending a relief team as well as dry rations and equipment for the survivors. Incidentally, this was the first time that a Sri Lankan Air Force plane was used to ferry a relief team and relief goods to a foreign land.

Border

India was also very swift with its response, being the closest neighbour with an open border to the Himalayan Kingdom. China, another country which shares a border with Nepal, also sent relief teams quickly. Other countries around the world have also joined in the rescue and relief efforts, though any chance of anyone surviving the quake buried under the rubble for more than a week is rather slim.

In the light of this disaster, it is imperative for South Asian nations to come together to handle natural calamities. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) must take the lead in this regard - coincidentally, the SAARC Secretariat itself is located in Kathmandu, Nepal. SAARC already has a food fund and a development fund. It should also have a unified body and mechanism to coordinate efforts to handle disaster relief efforts.

This is essential because all SAARC countries are prone to natural disasters. The Maldives faces the danger of rising sea levels due to climate change, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka experience frequent floods, India and Pakistan too have faced big earthquakes and of course, we cannot forget the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 which killed around 50,000 people in the region.


Earthquake aftermath pic courtesy: Voice of Toronto

The SAARC countries must invest more in weather research equipment, capacity and personnel. There is a tsunami warning system in place that has worked fairly well in the few instances that tsunami alerts were issued for this part of the world. But more sophisticated facilities and equipment are needed to predict other calamities such as cyclones, droughts and floods. SAARC should have its own weather satellite system that will make this task easier. All SAARC countries could fund such an initiative and the meteorological institutions of the SAARC nations must be linked in real-time to make use of the massive amount of weather data.

Research

SAARC universities too should intensify natural disaster research collectively and individually. In most other advanced countries, universities play a crucial role in weather research in addition to the weather bureaus and forecasters. The media too can play a major role in this exercise - Sri Lankan television channels pay scant attention to the weather, whereas foreign channels devote a considerable amount of time for weather forecasting. In fact, there are many people who depend on foreign TV channels and websites to know about the weather in Sri Lanka.

The only hitch with predicting natural disasters is that earthquakes cannot be predicted in advance with any accuracy. The latest systems can apparently provide a very brief head-start but that hardly allows any time for warning and evacuation. Scientists around the world are striving to develop systems that can warn about impending earthquakes at least several hours early. They can however predict tsunamis and their spread fairly accurately. But earthquakes that may trigger tsunamis in the first place are still difficult to predict. Right now, scientists study fault lines and seismic activity to reckon the possibility of an earthquake - in fact, at least one team of researchers warned just weeks ago that a major quake was due in the exact location where the Nepali earthquake struck.

Scientists are trying to learn more about the "Sixth Sense" that most animals apparently possess when it comes to natural disasters. For example, not a single animal in the Yala National Park was killed in the 2004 tsunami, as they had all fled further inland at least 15 minutes before the first wave struck the shore. Scientists believe that we too may have possessed such skills in the very early days of human evolution but eventually lost them as the brain developed and we depended more on vision.

Hidden

In the far future it might be possible to 'switch on' those genes if they are hidden now. In the meantime, learning how animals get a forewarning may help us to comprehend the relevant biological processes at work.

Scientists and engineers are also striving to build more earthquake resilient homes and buildings. There is even a new name for this science - earthquake engineering. Geologists, seismologists, geotechnical engineers, and earthquake engineers are coming together for this purpose.

Since several tremors have occurred in Sri Lanka in recent times, the national Building Research Organisation and other scientists must do more research in this area.

Already, some of the tallest buildings in the world such as Taipei 101 have been built with earthquakes in mind. They may be able to survive even a big earthquake but there is no guarantee of complete safety. It is even more important to ensure earthquake safety for residential buildings and homes and for infrastructure facilities such as hospitals, roads and bridges. Earthquake disaster movies such as the upcoming San Andreas (starring Dwayne Johnson) portray extreme damage to entire cities, but if an earthquake is not too powerful, at least some of the facilities could survive intact. A lot more research has to be done in respect of earthquakes. We may not be able to 'stop' earthquakes per se with current levels of technology, but with advance warning the damage could be minimised.

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