At the Yale Himalaya Initiative, we have collaborated with the Urbanization and Global Change Lab
— run by F&ES Professor Karen Seto
— which is using high-resolution remote sensing imagery to identify areas that have been devastated. [The work has been done in collaboration with Miguel Roman at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who has worked with the team to analyze data from a new satellite that observes high resolution nighttime lights.] These imageries will be translated into GIS layers in coordination with [Stanford University] to produce maps that will prioritize areas for relief and rescue work through the open street mapping platform. Specifically, these images detect changes on the ground since the earthquake, showing which houses have been damaged, which roads have been damaged, which bridges are damaged, which routes are working, which routes are not working… These high-resolution images can be used at the local level to help prioritize relief efforts.
We are also working very closely with the Department of Religious Studies and the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which works on the preservation of cultural artifacts and buildings. And we’ve come together with the same idea of identifying places that have been destroyed and help prioritize where restoration work can be done.
Q: No country can fully prepare for an event like this. But what are some of the vulnerabilities that this earthquake has exposed?
The entire Himalayan range is sitting on one of the most seismically active belts in the world. The recent earthquake is considered [seismically] much smaller than the one that has been predicted… There are natural hazards that you can’t do much about. But these hazards become disasters when they coincide with vulnerable populations living in poverty, with relatively poor governance and a lack of enforcement of building codes.
Across the Himalayan region, you have diverse communities living in very remote areas where they often use local building materials. Often these materials are wood or bamboo, which is great because it’s very light. But if you’re using rock and mud, they are very heavy and will certainly cause a lot of devastation… Think of Bhutan. Think about India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All of these places are facing similar issues: they have really old structures made of mud and stone. Can they handle shocks? Is there disaster preparedness? Are there early-warning systems available? Are communities really ready?
So what this has really showcased is the vulnerability of poor communities living in seismically active regions with poor building construction codes and lack of governance and preparedness. Even if governments are working really hard to prepare, there are so many people — roughly 210 million people living across this region. So you’re talking about a huge effort that needs to be done urgently and systematically, and it’s very hard because of the remoteness.
Q: How might these insights inform the future direction of the Yale Himalaya Initiative and the work being done in this region?
Everybody wants to do something in the moment. But the biggest challenges come when the disaster is no longer the “hottest topic” in the news, after five or six months when people have moved on to something else. How do we rebuild? How do we bring back the community? How do we do it better this time? And that requires long-term commitment.
F&ES, through the Haiti program
developed by [Associate Dean] Gordon Geballe
, has a model of long-term engagement with a country. Yale Himalaya Initiative is in discussion with faculty and students to follow a similar model to build long-term resilience in the Himalayan region through the efforts of risk reduction, environmental health, natural resource management and preservation of cultural heritage.