“We don’t have up-to-date data on which towns are growing, how they are growing, and where the vulnerable people are located in this region.”
— Karen Seto, Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science
Such information wasn’t easily available in 2015 when an earthquake devastated parts of Nepal, triggering tens of thousands of landslides that buried whole villages in mud and rock. More than 9,000 people were killed and more than a half-million homes were destroyed.
“After the earthquake we started looking and realized that we had insufficient longitudinal data on how these towns and cities had been growing,” said Karen Seto, Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) and principal investigator. “And it wasn’t just maps. We don’t have up-to-date data on which towns are growing, how they are growing, and where the vulnerable people are located in this region.”
“We have methods to detect the growth of big cities — that’s relatively easy,” she added. “But we have less macro-level data about smaller towns which are where most people in the Himalayan region are moving.”
The project will be conducted in partnership with the Yale Himalaya Initiative (YHI), the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
From 1981 to 2000, the percentage of people living in cities and towns across the Himalayan region doubled. Depending on location, this shift was driven by multiple factors including the growth of the tourism economy, social and political unrest, and patterns of mobility causing rural families to relocate as a result of land degradation or changing abilities to maintain livelihoods.
This demographic shift has had significant environmental and ecological implications. Construction of new buildings, roadways cut into steep hillsides, deforestation, and unplanned urban development have caused a rise in hillside collapses, landslides, debris flows, and rock slides, putting millions of people at risk.
In the past few years alone, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has experienced a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan-Afghanistan; a glacial lake outburst flood in northern Bhutan; floods in Uttarakhand that killed nearly 6,000 and trapped 100,000 more; and the 2015 Nepal quakes that killed 9,000 and injured 23,000 more.
“These places are already very fragile and vulnerable to shocks,” said Alark Saxena ’07 M.E.M., ’15 Ph.D., an Associate Research Scientist at F&ES, program director of the YHI and co-investigator of the research project. “Forest fires, flash floods, earthquakes and landslides constantly affect communities in this region, and the impacts of climate change and human migration are only making them more vulnerable.”