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Proposal for a Disaster Management University
to be established in Kathmandu, Nepal

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The Disaster Management University Proposal is a project of Mountain Legacy, a Nepalese non-governmental organization. Our goal is to bring together an international coalition of interested parties to establish an institution focused on research, training, policy development, and community outreach in order to better respond to a wide range of disasters, with special emphasis on those impacting mountainous regions. Mountain Legacy has no proprietary interest in the proposed university, and all specifics remain to be determined by the participating parties. Please contact us for more information, and to get involved in the project.

Rationale

earthquake Kathmandu Nepal

Why a Disaster Management University? Human investments (broadly defined) and human impact are expanding and intensifying exponentially, so that even relatively small-scale events may be experienced as catastrophic. A glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) like that which occurred at Dig Tsho in 1986 would cause substantially more damage to tourism infrastructure downstream, and would cripple a tourism industry that is now essential to Nepal's economy. Global climate change has greatly increased the frequency of storms, reshaped climate patterns, reformatted ecosystems, and displaced species distribution, thereby impacting regional security, livelihoods, and health. It is no exaggeration to say that we are entering an era in which disasters are the norm, not the exception. We have to prepare to meet these challenges.

An interdisciplinary approach

earthquake landslide Nepal

The cascading causes and results of disasters require us to train disaster scientists in a new way -- not in compartmentalized disciplines, but in fields defined by the complexities of real-world phenomena. While conventional universities are organized into academic departments, the Disaster Management University would be organized into linked operations:

  • risk assessment and event prediction
  • hazard mitigation (policy and infrastructure)
  • first response (evacuation, rescue, emergency assistance)
  • recovery and reconstruction

Each of these operations would entail a wide range of general and specific knowledge and skill sets.

While the DMU would offer advanced degree programs to students with suitable backgrounds, it would also collaborate with local and international institutions to offer short-term instruction for cross-registered students, and also facilitate ongoing study-abroad programs. Eventually, the DMU at Kathmandu might have branches in other remote mountainous regions such as Uttarakhand, India, or Yungay, Peru.

earthquake village Nepal

Why Kathmandu? Many types of disasters are unlikely or rare enough that you cannot predict where they would occur; it would not make sense to design an academic career specifically to prepare for events such as asteroid collision, tsunami, nuclear terrorism, or super-volcano eruption. However, even though these phenomena may seem to pertain to disparate fields, they have important strategic points in common, particularly rescue and evacuation. And these points in common are typical of the many disastrous phenomena that regularly occur in the extremely dynamic environments of the Himalayan and other mountain regions.

Placing a Disaster Management University at a Himalayan gateway like Kathmandu would allow scholars to study the processes and situations, both natural and social, that generate some of the most frequent and most costly events: flooding, mass wasting, epidemic. It would also virtually ensure that participants will witness actual emergencies or full-fledged disasters, either directly or in their downstream impact. Geomorphological and historical research could be carried out on past disasters, including a series of massive earthquakes. Equally important, researchers would have the opportunity to examine numerous situations and evaluate scenarios that may be incorrectly presumed to be premonitory of disaster.

Kathmandu has the further advantage that it already accommodates many agencies and institutions focused on mountain research and development. A number of researchers currently associated with ICIMOD, for example, would be likely candidates for positions in the DMU, and many more would be able to collaborate on an ad hoc basis. Nepal also presents a population with a tradition of enduring and responding to recurring disasters; disaster management specialists will have much to learn from people who have for centuries maintained livelihoods, transportation links, and infrastructure in the face of existential hazards.

A global agenda, a windfall for Nepal

Tsho Rolpa Governments and agencies around the world would be able to send their specialists to Kathmandu, not only to enhance their own skills, but to share with their colleagues and to establish relationships that will serve them at home when the need arises. No community, no provincial government, no country, whatever its state of development, can invest enough resources to meet all contingencies: fire fighters, hazmat specialists, sniffer dogs, evacuation and refugee facilities, medical supplies, blood donors and money all have to be rushed in from unimpacted areas. These needs are particularly critical for Nepal, a landlocked nation with severely constrained access and distribution capabilities.

Nepal offers, in a compact area, unparalleled diversity of landscape, ecosystems, and social organization. While it has been studied more than many other remote areas, there is tremendous opportunity for long-term longitudinal studies of natural processes, human impact, and post-traumatic recovery. Like the human genome project, an in-depth knowledge-base of Nepal would be useful for the development of skills and procedures to be applied around the world, but it would be particularly useful for the host country itself. As an impoverished nation dependent on tourism and especially on a unique treasure of attractions that includes many cultural and natural World Heritage Sites, Nepal is an appropriate beneficiary of the kind of attention that would accrue to the host of a major research institute such as the DMU.

Beside research and instruction, the DMU could undertake a role in evaluating predictions. As Jack Ives pointed out in Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling development and conservation and in Sustainable Mountain Development: Getting the Facts Right, the costs of incorrect predictions (or exaggerated alarms) can be substantial: wasted infrastructure, unnecessary evacuation, inaccurate vilification of vulnerable communities, blockading of tourist destinations. Nepal has long been the victim of inaccurate hazard assessments and travel advisories from many official sources; the conservative tendencies of poorly informed bureaucrats have resulted in advisories that effectively inhibited student exchange programs, depressed tourism, and disrupted communities. An established and respected institution could substitute careful scientific assessments for the sensational scenarios of journalists and the sugar-coated projections of infrastructure developers.

An opportune site for the DMU campus

Kathmandu also has an excellent potential site for the Disaster Management University: the former royal Narayanhiti Palace, which is now conspicuously under-utilized as a museum. That function could continue within the campus of a new university, a reminder that political instability can constitute a significant disaster.

narayanhiti palace
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Collateral impacts of the DMU

It remains to be emphasized that study abroad is one of the most advantageous forms of tourism for developing nations. Students stay for long periods, develop lifelong commitments to the study country, bring important expertise and attract foreign currency. An international institute could serve as a teaching college for local institutions, helping to build their capacity to serve the local populace as well as their own international students.

Contact

Please email the DMU Steering Committee care of
Dr. Seth Sicroff, Mountain Legacy Projects Coordinator: sicroff@MountainLegacy.org.

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