Human psychology and aggravated disaster risk

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by Piyoosh Rautela 

Despite geographical, religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity humans think, act, and react in an amazingly similar fashion, particularly during distress and life-threatening situations. This is attributed to evolution, as behavioral traits providing relative advantage and maximizing chances of survival get engrained in our behavior and psychology. Though evolved through the struggle for survival and aimed at saving us, these traits also make us vulnerable and expose us to risks of various kinds.

Fading affect bias

You might wonder why people living in a region that is subject to repeated disasters do not learn lessons from the past and devise ways and means of warding off the threat. This might often make you fall prey to blame the victim syndrome wherein you tend to attribute the disaster to the ignorance and inaction of the disaster victims.

You however fail to appreciate that we all, including the disaster victims, are hardwired to quickly forget the memories associated with negative emotions more than those associated with positive emotions. Memories of distress, misery, and disaster therefore routinely get erased quickly, and people tend to behave as if these do not pose any threat to them.

So, there is nothing seriously wrong with disaster victims not resorting to proactive steps for reducing their vulnerability.

Maybe, you don’t believe this. But then, what childhood memories you are able to recollect instantly? Like all of us, you might have also come across some not-so-pleasant and traumatizing instances during your childhood, but could you recollect those instantly?

If not, the assertion is right, and humans do really tend to forget not-so-pleasant instances.

Psychologists call this fading affect bias and it helps humans move forward in life despite having faced harsh and bitter instances. Alternatively, this ensures that humans are not clinging to their traumatic past, and move forward with routine livelihood chores.

Faded memories of previous disaster instances, however, instill a false sense of security and safety as the community tends to forget its vulnerabilities as also the risks to which it is exposed. There thus remains no incentive for making efforts for risk reduction.

Forgotten flood vulnerability: It is therefore no wonder that people living along the banks of Bhagirathi in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand are resorting to similar practices that they indulged in before the floods of 2010, 2012, and 2013.

Similar is the case with people living along the banks of Mandakini in Rudraprayag district and for that matter those living alongside Alaknanda or Dhauliganga rivers in Chamoli district.

Hamlets and habitations were devastated just a couple of years back bustle with life and people have settled at the same places that were devastated by floodwaters.

There could well be varied socio-economic reasons for people to do so.

The forgotten earthquake: But then, fading affect bias adds to our vulnerability. Leaving apart devastation, we tend to forget even the incidence.

For that matter how many of us are really aware that the Garhwal Earthquake of 1 September 1803 caused major devastation in the region and the trail of losses extended till DelhiAgra, and Aligarh in the Gangetic plains?

Long recurrence period: Moreover, a long recurrence period particularly so for earthquakes and major flood incidences makes people believe that the previous disaster was an exception and the worst is over.

This leads them to believe that their habitations are to remain safe in future.

Before 2013 Alaknanda valley had witnessed major flooding in 1970 but the people of Mandakini valley had had no reminiscence of floods of this magnitude. For that matter, Rishiganga – Dhauliganga valleys were also considered safe from devastating floods until February 2021.

Likewise for more than two decades after the Uttarkashi and Chamoli earthquakes of 1991 and 1999, Uttarakhand has not witnessed any major seismic tremor. With even the state making no serious effort to highlight seismic risk and actively promoting earthquake safety measuresfading effect bias leaves no incentive for the masses to invest in seismic safety.

Optimism bias

Thinking positively is an evolutionary hallmark as it facilitates envisioning what is possible and can be done, allowing people to be courageous and innovative. But what the psychologists call optimism bias could well result in lowered guard, particularly with regard to disaster-related preparedness as it instills a mistaken belief amongst people that their chances of experiencing negative events are lower while the chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of their peers.

So those living in Dehradun tend to feel that earthquake is not affected them and if at the earth shakes it would affect those living in remote hill districts, particularly Uttarkashi and Chamoli. They tend to ignore the harsh reality that Dehradun is located dangerously close to the Himalayan Frontal Fault and Main Boundary Thrust and energy released through these could devastate the city.

Likewise, those in the Kumaun division live with a false perception that only the Garhwal division is vulnerable to earthquakes. They tend to forget that located in close proximity of the Himalayan Frontal Fault the areas around Kathgodam – Haldwani and Ramnagar have witnessed major earthquakes in the past.

Seismogenic losses are however a function of the concentration of infrastructure and population. Moreover, one tends to forget that major losses on the 26 January 2001 Bhuj Earthquake were experienced around Ahmedabad which is more than 200 km from the epicenter, and no place in Uttarakhand is that distant from any possible epicenter in the region and the devastation in case of a major Himalayan earthquake could well extend till the National Capital Region.

Earthquake:  Major challenge       

After the 2013 floods that claimed more than 4000 human lives and severely devastated 05 of the 13 districts of Uttarakhand, the state has emphasized putting in place mechanisms for effective early warning generation and dissemination, particularly for hydro-meteorological hazards. Small and big disasters after 2013 in DhauligangaKumaun, Arakot, Sarkhet, and other places only reinstated this resolve.

An array of hydro-meteorological instruments has accordingly been put in place across the state, and efforts are underway to further strengthen it and reinforce warning dissemination infrastructure.

The state has no doubt been overwhelmed by hydro-meteorological disasters and is making every possible effort to tackle these effectively. Together with this, long seismic quiescence seems to have pushed seismic safety to the back seat, and like the masses, the state seems to have fallen victim to fading affect bias.

Turkey – Seismic vulnerability: The scenes of death and destruction unleashed by 7.8 magnitudes Turkey – Syria Earthquake of 6 February 2023 and a swarm of aftershocks including those of 6.7 and 7.5 magnitudes however call for a serious review of the seismic vulnerability of Uttarakhand region and put in place a robust and holistic earthquake safety regime.

It is worth noting that located in the complex zone of collision between the Eurasian Plate and both the African and Arabian PlatesTurkey has been prone to earthquakes and has a well-documented history of seismogenic devastation dating back to Magnitude 7.5 Antioch Earthquake of 13 December 115.

Moreover, in the recent past Turkey has been devastated by the Magnitude 7.6 Izmit Earthquake of 17 August 1999 and the Magnitude 7.2 Duzce Earthquake of 12 November 1999 which killed 17127 and 894 persons respectively.

There has not been seismic quiescence thereafter and apart from low-magnitude earthquakes with lesser casualties, Turkey has been rattled repeatedly. The magnitude 6.5  Afyon Earthquake of 3 February 2002 killed 44 persons, Magnitude 6.4 Bingöl Earthquake of 1 May 2003 killed 177 persons, the Magnitude 7.2 Van Earthquake of 23 October 2011 killed 604 persons, the Magnitude 5.6 Van Earthquake of 9 November 2011 killed 40 persons, Magnitude 6.7 Elazığ Earthquake of 24 January 2020 killed 41 persons, and Magnitude 7.0 Aegean Sea earthquake of 30 October 2020 killed 117 persons.

Despite witnessing frequent seismogenic devastation Turkey however failed to learn lessons and put in place adequate seismic safety measures, and preliminary reports suggest the prevalence of soft stories and large projections in the buildings to have added to the losses.

Uttarakhand – Seismic vulnerability: Back home Uttarakhand is no less vulnerable, and the state of the built environment is no better or different. A cocktail of unplanned growth, weak compliance of building bye-laws, and enforcement is limited to major urban areas, is continuously enhancing seismic vulnerability of the built environment of the region and any major earthquake in the region could have catastrophic implications.

Moreover, one needs to remember that Uttarakhand has not witnessed a major earthquake since the M~7.5 Garhwal Earthquake of 1 September 1803 and lies in the seismic gap of the M~7.8 Kangra Earthquake of 4 April 1905 and the M~8.0 Bihar–Nepal Earthquake of 15 January 1934. It is all the more pertinent to note that Dehradun was the secondary epicenter of the Kangra Earthquake.

So the seismic risk in Uttarakhand is real and particularly high.

The state is no doubt operating an earthquake early warning system but one needs to appreciate that earthquake early warning is no substitute for earthquake-safe infrastructure. Moreover, this system is to provide no warning for a large area in the epicentral region, and therefore serious efforts are required to upgrade the seismic performance of the building stock; both existing and upcoming.

Way forward

For ensuring seismic safety building bye-laws have to be modified and upgraded, a stricter compliance regime with no compromise policy has to be put in place, and seismic safety has to be made a precondition for operating any business or public utility – school, hospital, shop, mall, theatre, and multiplex.

Moreover, any major earthquake is sure to derail the pace of growth and development and make recovery difficult and long-drawn, particularly for marginal and small businesses and those working in the unorganized sectors.

It is therefore urgently required that a robust and binding disaster insurance regime be put in place and premiums to the same be linked to electricity or other utility bills paid by individuals on a regular basis.

Policing alone would however be of little help unless people understand the importance of adopting earthquake safety measures and voluntarily comply with the laid down norms. For this, an aggressive and continuing mass awareness drive, revolving around risk communication and reduction and involving a brand ambassador, has to be designed and implemented to overcome fading affect bias.

(The post-Human psychology and aggravated disaster risk appeared first on Risk Prevention Mitigation and Management Forum.)

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