Geoscientists Protect Vulnerable Populations Against Natural Disasters

This is the story of two tragedies – one in Nepal, one in India – but more importantly, how humanitarian projects by Geoscientists without Borders may help prevent the devastation of the next two.

And the tragedies after that.

In 2015, an earthquake struck near Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, which is in the central part of the country. Almost 10,000 people were killed, many thousands more injured and more than 600,000 structures in Kathmandu and other nearby towns were either damaged or destroyed.

Václav Kuna, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague, Czech Republic, was moved to do something about it. He wanted to provide early warning and alerts to residents of these areas, so he decided on a project that would perform data acquisition, analysis and computation of seismic site response using ambient noise measurement for seismic microzonation. His earthquake early warning system is designed to detect at an early stage of an earthquake, issue those alerts and provide critical time for users to seek cover or exit a building before the shaking begins. The system is based on recent advances in what has come to be known as “the Internet of Things” – a cloud-based, open-source technology. This significantly reduces the cost of EEW – something that would make it attractive for all those areas of the world, like much of Nepal, that might not have the resources for more expensive and sophisticated systems.

Cooperation from Stakeholders

The basic idea of any early earthquake warning system is to give people as much warning as possible before a cataclysmic event. The more time you give people before a quake, the more lives are saved.

So, how did Kuna proceed, generally, and traverse Nepali bureaucracy, specifically?

“It’s a bit complicated,” he said.

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This is the story of two tragedies – one in Nepal, one in India – but more importantly, how humanitarian projects by Geoscientists without Borders may help prevent the devastation of the next two.

And the tragedies after that.

In 2015, an earthquake struck near Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, which is in the central part of the country. Almost 10,000 people were killed, many thousands more injured and more than 600,000 structures in Kathmandu and other nearby towns were either damaged or destroyed.

Václav Kuna, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague, Czech Republic, was moved to do something about it. He wanted to provide early warning and alerts to residents of these areas, so he decided on a project that would perform data acquisition, analysis and computation of seismic site response using ambient noise measurement for seismic microzonation. His earthquake early warning system is designed to detect at an early stage of an earthquake, issue those alerts and provide critical time for users to seek cover or exit a building before the shaking begins. The system is based on recent advances in what has come to be known as “the Internet of Things” – a cloud-based, open-source technology. This significantly reduces the cost of EEW – something that would make it attractive for all those areas of the world, like much of Nepal, that might not have the resources for more expensive and sophisticated systems.

Cooperation from Stakeholders

The basic idea of any early earthquake warning system is to give people as much warning as possible before a cataclysmic event. The more time you give people before a quake, the more lives are saved.

So, how did Kuna proceed, generally, and traverse Nepali bureaucracy, specifically?

“It’s a bit complicated,” he said.

“There are a few governmental institutions in Nepal that were potential partners of the project, each of which would fit well a different aspect of the project – geological, technical, implementation – and we went with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, which manages risks of different natural disaster,” said Kuna.

He felt this authority was a “perfect partner in the long term” because they were able to disseminate alerts in the future and do outreach. In the short term, however, the initial stage, in which the project is now, Nepali government officials believed his partners should be either geologically or technically-oriented institutions.

“It is a lot of politics, though,” Kuna admitted. “And sometimes it is difficult to get oriented about all needs, motivations and interests of different governmental representatives.”

“The aim of our project,” he reiterated, “was to establish a real-time earthquake monitoring system in central Nepal, with the ultimate goal of testing the feasibility of EEW in the region.”

The project, currently nine months into a two-year wind, is about finished deploying all the sensors deemed necessary.

So far, it’s working as he hoped.

“We have recorded several small earthquakes – one located in the town of Kushma, the other north of Besisahar, and issued test alerts,” he said.

There was no public risk associated with those earthquakes, he said, but even if there was, the system would not publish public alerts yet as it needs to be thoroughly tested before it can be fully implemented.

When completed, he said, university faculties, graduate students, as well as municipal engineers will be able to use the equipment and transferred technology to investigate sites for earthquake resilient construction in future.

Landslide Mitigation

Meanwhile in India, there was a different problem: landslides.

In Kerala, in the southernmost part of India, the area experienced 140-percent more rain than the norm during the month of August 2018, and it revealed the vulnerability of the region to landslides and flooding. More than 1 million people were displaced, 483 were declared dead and more than 1,300 landslides affected numerous bridges and roads, cutting off towns, villages and livelihoods of communities.

How then to improve landslide hazard analysis in the most vulnerable area within Idukki district, Kerala, and help communities reduce landslide risk in future extreme rain events?

Enter Thomas Oommen, a professor of geological and mining engineering and sciences at Michigan Technological University who decided to improve the region’s landslide susceptibility analysis.

“In India, we partnered with the Kerala State Disaster Management Agency,” which is the government agency authorized to provide early warning, he said. KSDMA worked with other government departments to get the necessary permissions for the rain gauge installations.

The goals:

  • To utilize geophysical investigation to characterize the geotechnical and groundwater properties of the landslide-prone terrains at the study site
  • To develop a rain gauge network at the study site
  • To promote a landslide hazard nowcasting system utilizing the datasets from the aforementioned goals

“We are continuously recording rain events at the new rain gauge locations,” he said, but like the work in Nepal, the models have not been completed to provide public alerts yet.

“We have collected geology information in the fieldwork and are utilizing that for building a landslide susceptibility model for the area,” said Oommen.

“Due to COVID, we faced some difficulties and delays. But overall, we are pleased with the support and enthusiasm for the project from the government agency,” he added.

At present, the project, which is about 65 percent complete, will be finished by March 2023.

AGI and the AAPG Foundation

Both Kuna and Oommen were featured speakers on a webinar held on Earth Day, appropriately enough, by the American Geosciences Institute, highlighting GWB’s humanitarian projects in addressing challenges to protect vulnerable populations and the ways forward for implementing hazard early warning systems in data sparse locations. The AAPG Foundation is a longtime sponsor of Geoscientists Without Borders.