Yale Responds to Nepal Earthquake: ‘Our Commitment Will Continue’

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

alark saxena Alark Saxena
In the days since a deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, causing devastation across a 5,600-square-mile area, members of the Yale community have been involved in a variety of response activities.
During the first few days, members of the Nepali Association of Yale Affiliates (NAYA) helped translate into Nepali critical UN situation reports and the Facebook app that has allowed people to better understand the rescue and relief efforts and track down friends and family located in areas impacted by the quake. An even larger coalition — coordinated by the Yale Himalaya Initiative (YHI) and the F&ES-based Yale Urbanization and Globalization Lab — is using satellite-based imagery to help identify vulnerable regions that are in the most dire need of assistance. 

Nepal Earthquake:
Prelude to Bigger Disaster?

At YaleGlobal Online, Alark Saxena writes that poverty, weak governance, unchecked urbanization increase Himalaya region’s vulnerability to earthquakes and other natural disasters. Read more
As director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative, Alark Saxena, a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), was working with partner organization Lutheran World Relief across Nepal and India to develop resilience long before the earthquake ever struck. In an interview, he describes how Yale has been able to coordinate its vast resources and interdisciplinary expertise to provide support during this crisis — and how the Yale Himalaya Initiative’s longer-term mission will help make communities across the Himalayan region more prepared for future threats.

Q: You have a lot of colleagues and friends on the ground in Nepal. What are you hearing from them right now?

ALARK SAXENA: Yale, and F&ES in particular, has more than 30 years of connections in the Himalayan region, going back to [Professor] Bill Burch’s work in community forestry in Nepal. And there’s a huge network of alumni and current students who are actually from Nepal. Fortunately, all of them are okay. Some have seen their homes disturbed by the quake, but otherwise they are safe. We’ve connected with them through social media and emails, and have heard from most of them.
The Yale Himalaya Initiativebrings together faculty, students, and professionals from across the Yale community whose work focuses on the Himalayan regions of Nepal, India, Bhutan, Pakistan, and China, as well as the Tibetan cultural areas that traverse the borders of all those states. It engages with the Himalaya as a significant transnational space for research and practice, focusing broadly on the themes of environment, livelihoods, and culture. Visit the site
What we’re hearing from our alums and students is that the devastation is ubiquitous. Kathmandu and parts of the cultural heritage area have been devastated. Old buildings have been brought down, and they’ve witnessed the kind of damage that we’ve seen in the mainstream media. But what they have really emphasized is just how much damage has also occurred in the remote, surrounding areas. As often occurs, much of the relief and rescue efforts are happening in the areas where there is a lot of mainstream media attention. Our network of alums, friends and colleagues have highlighted that these remote areas are equally damaged and they need a lot of support, too.

Q: What part has social media played in Yale’s response?

SAXENA: Social media has played a huge role. The Yale Himalaya Initiative has been working closely with the Nepali Association of Yale Affiliates, which has formed a strong team supporting efforts that are going on the ground. We have worked very closely with the students to promote fund-raising across the Yale campus through the social media... And they’ve also been working with Mark Turin, the former YHI program director, in translating the “Friends Finder” app that was launched by Facebook to help people locate their friends in Nepal. They were able to translate that application into Nepali language so that local people can read that and connect with one another.
This has really showcased is the vulnerability of poor communities living in seismically active regions with poor building construction codes and lack of governance.
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?

SAXENA: 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?

SAXENA: 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.
This is also a reminder for the university of just how important this region is, how vulnerable the region is.
For a long-term commitment, Yale as a university must increase our efforts for creating resilient Himalayan communities. This can be done by engaging with local communities, NGOs and governments with projects similar to the one that Yale Himalaya initiative is doing. And that really is the best thing that a university can do: put its intellect behind the urgent and important work of rebuilding and helping bring the communities back at much more strengthened levels.
This was a disaster, and it should be seen as a lesson for other Himalayan communities to get ready. Earthquakes are not once-in-a-lifetime events. They happen. And if you look at the seismic information, they’re happening all the time. This is also a reminder for the university of just how important this region is, how vulnerable the region is, and how the knowledge and expertise of the university, in bringing together different schools at Yale, can bring together a collective strength that we can contribute to the long-term sustainability of that region.