25 March 2011

Building Rural Resilience in Seismically Active Areas

Posted by Dave Petley

This post is mirrored from the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience blog at Durham.  It is an outcome of a NERC funded project that we are undertaking.

Mega cities often receive all the attention when it comes to earthquake risk reduction activities, but what about rural communities living in seismically active areas?  As the recent earthquakes in Kashmir, Pakistan and Sichuan, China have shown, rural populations are vulnerable not only to the shaking but also the secondary hazards associated with earthquake events.  In this blog post series, Katie Oven and Nick Rosser summarise a scoping study funded by the NERC and ESRC which focuses on rural communities specifically and explores how science and local knowledge can be combined to build resilience at the local level.

The aim of our scoping study is to understand community perceptions of earthquake-related hazards in rural areas of Nepal, and the factors increasing the vulnerability of rural communities to seismic hazards, in order to identify current research needs across the physical and social sciences.

In the first of two videos Nick Rosser introduces the region in which they did field work for this project in rural Nepal

Nepal NERC Resilience Project

Why rural areas?

While the threat to urban areas is indisputable, rural areas still contain more than 70% of the population of many earthquake-prone countries in the Global South, including Nepal, Afghanistan, and India, indicating that rural residents will make up a significant fraction of those exposed to future earthquakes.  High levels of poverty and a lack of resources and expertise to mitigate and respond to disasters, renders a far higher proportion of the population vulnerable to hazard events. This vulnerability may be greatly enhanced by patterns of migration and rural depopulation, leaving behind those residents who are least able to mitigate or respond to disasters (e.g., the old, young and impaired); and through the expansion of semi-urban areas which are often haphazardly planned and where migrants are often neglected by both rural and urban administrations. The hazards that pose the greatest threat to rural populations differ from those in urban areas, so that the transfer of lessons learned in cities may be inadequate.

Is local knowledge alone enough?

Much has been written on the role of local knowledge for disaster risk reduction but what if that local knowledge is weak or absent? Community-based or participatory approaches to disaster management are common in the NGO sector, whereby communities identify and prioritise the hazards and risks they face and develop their own response strategies.  But, there are concerns that indigenous knowledge alone is not enough, particularly in the context of rare high-magnitude events or without supporting expertise or resources. In the absence of local knowledge due to the long recurrence intervals of large earthquakes, developing strategies to enhance resilience can be a much greater challenge, as information needs to be provided before communities can engage in a discussion about resilience building.

Why Nepal?

We chose Nepal as an exemplar of an area with a high but spatially variable and poorly quantified level of seismic hazard; a significant divide between urban and rural populations in terms of access to resources and government services; and one in which significant local efforts to boost individual and community resilience to earthquakes were already underway, led by a range of national and regional NGOs including one of our local project partners: the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET).

Ranjan Dhungel (NSET) explaining the basics of earthquake science using hard-boiled eggs.

Our approach

We undertook ten days of field work in two communities in rural central Nepal to develop an understanding of the interface between natural hazard science, the concerns of the community relative to seismic risk, and their perceptions and understandings of earthquake-related hazards. The multi-disciplinary team comprised academics and practitioners from Durham and Northumbria University and our local partner organisations including: the NSET the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Nepal School of Social Work.  The team included a geologist, civil engineer, social worker, environmental scientist and geographer in consultation with the local community.  A range of participatory methodologies were used including: risk ranking exercises, land use and hazard mapping, scenario building using a 3D model of the study area.

Scenario building using a 3D model of the Valley.

In addition, a one-month consultation with local partners in Nepal enabled us to identify the relevant initiatives that are already underway, as well as the key research needs from the perspective of the practitioner community. Second, we met with the same practitioners, representatives of regional NGOs involved in earthquake hazard assessment and disaster preparedness (ICIMOD and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre), and academic experts from the US and UK in an invited workshop at Durham University.  Both of these approaches proved to be invaluable in shaping and contextualising the results of the study, and provide a positive model for effective engagement within the larger Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards Programme (IRNH).

The fieldwork team. From left to right: Ranjan Dhungel (NSET), Sam Jones (Northumbria University), Ruja Pokhrel and Bala Raju Nikku (Nepal School of Social Work), Katie Oven and Nick Rosser (IHRR) with our host family and the local government secretary.

In their next post, Nick and Katie will discuss the main findings from the scoping study and the implications for further research in this area and introduce some of the methods used in the study.