Earthquake lessons from history

South Asia has experienced many large earthquakes in the past hundred years. What can they teach us about disaster risk reduction?

The challenge

South Asia is highly vulnerable to large earthquakes. They have killed thousands of people and done billions of dollars’ worth of damage to property, most recently in Nepal in 2015, Kashmir in 2005 and Gujarat in 2001.

Governments, disaster management experts and community organisations are working to reduce earthquake risk, usually focusing on physical buildings and infrastructure, and emergency response capacity.

But earthquakes can also have less tangible effects on society in their damage zones. Relief and reconstruction can have lasting impacts on political stability, for example. Understanding these aspects is important for building resilience strategies.

What we're doing

Archives in South Asia and the UK provide rich sources of information about six hugely destructive earthquakes that took place in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar between the 1890s and 1950. Each earthquake killed between 2,000 and 30,000 people. We are investigating the archives to understand the damage that the earthquakes did to cities, agricultural regions, and the communities that lived there.

We are working with the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), a Kathmandu-based NGO that is a regional leader in disaster risk reduction, to explore the lessons that these past earthquakes can teach us.

How it helps

Historical examples are valuable because we can use declassified documents to tell an intimate story about how government officials took decisions, how political parties and charitable organisations responded to the disasters, and what resulted from their work.

This might not be possible for more recent disasters, when researchers have to rely on publicly-available documents, and interviews with actors who have reputations to protect. Researching the past also offers a longer perspective, and we are tracking the impacts of political debates, urban reconstruction and building codes over the long term.

Understanding political and social aspects of earthquakes can help disaster managers target interventions productively. Our partnership with NSET is an important way for academic historians to engage with disaster specialists to feed into risk reduction, especially advocacy.

Lead researcher profile

Dr Daniel Haines, Senior Lecturer in Environmental History

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