Just one month before the earthquake in Mirpur in Pakistan-administered Kashmir last year, Mohammed Altaf had married off his daughter, exhausting all his savings. Altaf, a salesman at a plastic furniture shop in Jatlan, Mirpur, who earns just enough for a modest existence, said, “[The] neighbours rescued my family, but my house was completely destroyed.” He added that while NGOs had provided them food and a tent to live in, “the government has not provided us even a single penny till today.”

This earthquake took the lives of around 40 people and injured more than 850. The tremors were felt in the Indian regions of Punjab, Kashmir and New Delhi as well ‒ another reminder that South Asia, and its people, are very vulnerable to seismic activity.

This is true of both the Eastern and Western Himalayas, the 2015 Nepal earthquake being a haunting testimony to this fact. With a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, it caused immense destruction to life and property. The death toll reached 9,000 people and nearly 22,000 individuals were injured.

Ashish Mishra was one of the people who lived through it. “I saw buildings fall down like nothing. The ironic thing was that engineering colleges fell down, institutions which are supposed to teach students to build good earthquake-resistant homes,” he said. While Mishra was lucky to survive, thousands perished. It had an enormous fallout in neighbouring countries as well with 78 dead in India, 27 in China and four in Bangladesh.

Although minor seismic activities are common in South Asia, this was a major one. It shows how natural disasters like earthquakes and floods do not respect man-made boundaries. Any major calamity in one country is likely to effect neighbouring ones as well.

Is South Asia prepared?

R Bilham and N Ambraseys, in a 2005 report titled Apparent Himalayan slip deficit from the summation of seismic moments for Himalayan earthquakes 1500–2000, state that the Indian plate is moving towards the Eurasian plate by 16-18 mm per year. This movement may cause the release of stress and result in future events of earthquakes.

Afghanistan is a recurrent spot in earthquake occurrences in South Asia. In India, the entire Northern stretch comes under mostly seismic zones four and five with the capital Delhi, coming under zone four, considered a high-damage risk zone.

Given the low development indicators of most South Asian countries, these earthquakes not only cost lives but also have a disproportionate impact on the economies of these countries. The Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology reported that the direct loss to the Nepali economy was approximately USD 3 billion, while indirect losses were up to USD 10 billion. Nepal’s GDP in 2018 was just over USD 27 billion.

Disasters of such huge magnitudes compel governments to act but those actions seem to be for a limited period of time only. Preparedness for natural disasters hardly comes up as an important issue for any of these countries. This is despite numerous warnings by seismologists that the next big earthquake could be in South Asia.

Working together

A geologist from Nepal, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said “It will only work through data and resource sharing among the eight-member countries, but Afghanistan and Pakistan aren’t always on good terms. Pakistan and India always view each other with suspicion. Nepal was a neutral player but the Kalapani dam issue and other activities by India have really soured public opinion.”

“Sri Lanka and Maldives are detached countries and Bhutan is sort of isolated...So the chances of such a body ever forming, and – if formed – then working, are very slim,” he said.

Maqsood Hussain Soomro, Assistant Director (Operations) at Provincial Disaster Management Authority Sindh, Pakistan said, “the authorities across the border do coordinate and share information about early responses to disasters but there is no forum for it.”

In India, a top seismologist based in Hyderabad said, “A lot of complexities have to be considered when we look at this. Say for example, Pakistan would not want to share its seismological data with India and vice versa because of various security reasons.” Countries have to be on the same page to allow anything like this, he said.

SAARC’s role

In other regions, transboundary cooperation has been successful. The European Seismological Commission places disaster prevention and the reduction of risks at the centre of its disaster risk management goals. It helps the European Union member states develop policies to better prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has the ASEAN Earthquake Information Centre.

In South Asia, though, there is no transnational cooperation on issues of seismology. One organisation that could facilitate this is in South Asia is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC. It was formed to enhance socio-economic cooperation in South Asia, and thus, has the mandate to help create a multilateral centre for seismology. The entire region can reap benefits from such a centre as it would help in the quick sharing of data between these countries. It would also help to create a pool of the best seismologists and provide them with adequate funds to carry out extensive indigenous research instead of relying solely on reports of foreign experts and agencies.

If successful, it can even impart training courses on par with the ESC emerging as a powerful centre imparting knowledge, research and creating awareness about earthquake measures that in the current scenario seems negligible among the populations of these countries.

Interestingly, a SAARC organisation named Meteorological Research Centre did exist till 2015, but it was shut down, along with five other regional centres, owing to lack of funds. It had published 150 scientific reports and articles in local as well as international journals. A new regional centre was then formed by merging all these entities called SAARC Disaster Management Centre.

Wendy Bohon, a geologist and Science Communications Specialist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, a consortium of over 120 US universities, explained how transnational organisations help in better understanding of earthquakes and previously unknown faults.

“Increased seismic monitoring and data sharing allows us to detect and locate these earthquakes more accurately. This helps scientists determine potential earthquake threats from previously unknown faults. Earthquakes can cause tremendous damage and loss of life hence it’s critical for scientists and governments to work to prevent loss of lives and property,” said Bohon.

With the lives of millions at stake, governments in South Asia must recognise this impending danger, and figure out a way to act in cooperation. Even if it is only out of sheer self interest, they must be able to discuss science, despite the hostilities between them.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.