On Wednesday 15 June 2010 an earthquake in West Papua, Indonesia, triggered a landslide that engulfed and killed 17 people travelling in a bus. It brought to mind the worst landslide I have seen which occured in Afghanistan in 1996. Here are the notes from my diary on that tragic day.
Recently I accompanied Abdul Basir on a difficult field trip to the mountain village of Qarluk in Badakshan. It took us four days to reach this village from Kabul by plane, landcruiser and the last day on foot or horse. The village of 750 people in the remote Hindu Kush had been hit some days before by a monstrous landslide that killed over 350 residents. All except three of the women in the village had been killed, along with a number of children, as they were in their homes while male members of the household were out tending animal and crops. The killer landslide silently swept down the hillside engulfing the whole village. Gulnesa Beg, the only girl to survive, was picked up by a dust and mud cloud, and hurled to safey, breaking her arm as she fell.
As we arrived in Qarluk, the survivors of the landslide, mainly men, were huddled together in an atmosphere of grief and bewilderment. Basir and I hugged them one by one and then he spoke to them with compassion and dignity. He told them that we in the Red Cross Movement were grieving with them and that they must take heart. Basir, in his humble way, gave those men hope at a time when their whole lives had been plunged into darkness and despair.
The men who survived the landslides sit outside their tents. The village covered in mud is the light flatish area to the left of centre in the photo, Photo: Bob McKerrow
The next day, after distributing relief supplies to each surviving family, Abdul Bashir mounted a borrowed horse and rode over a high mountain pass to two other villages in the next valley of Teshkan, where 7,000 people were under threat from a tottering mass of rock and mud high above their homes.
Abdul Basir (left), Zalmai my interpretor (centre), and village chief (right), riding over Teshkan Pass in Badkhshan Province in Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Basir gave the village leaders support and encouraged them to evacuate immediately. Then he walked two hours along a path on the precipitous mountainside before regaining the track and his horse.
Land or mudslides are killers, especially in mountainous lands where over-grazing, improper terracing, inappropriate irrigation and, deforestation, are destroying the natural run off of water. These modified mountain water catchment areas, are further being affected by climate change. Villages perched on steep hillsides, run the risk of slumping, or being hit by l;andslides, as sub-terrainean water courses destablise hillsides. Often an earthquake is the trigger.
"Increasing rainfall intensities and frequencies, coupled with population growth can drastically increase landslide-associated casualties, especially in developing countries, where pressure on land resources often lead to slope cultivation and slope agriculture which are very much prone to landslide disasters," according to the International Consortium on Landslides (ICL), United Nations University, Kyoto University and UNESCO scientists
The high Hindu Kush mountains of Badakhshan from Teshkan Pass. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Almost 100 experts from 14 nations, representing scores of global institutions and governments, gathered at UN University in Tokyo January 18-20 in 2005 to set international priorities for mitigating human and financial landslide losses and to promote a global network of International Programmes on Landslides.
The meeting marks the first anniversary of the landmark UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan.
Asia suffered 220 landslides in the past century – by far the most of any world region – but those in North, Central and South America have caused the most deaths and injuries (25,000+) while Europe’s are the most expensive – causing average damage of almost $23 million per landslide.
And experts attending the Tokyo conference warned that climate change-related increases in the number and intensity of typhoons and hurricanes will produce in tandem a rising danger of landslides in future.
"Increasing rainfall intensities and frequencies, coupled with population growth can drastically increase landslide-associated casualties, especially in developing countries, where pressure on land resources often lead to slope cultivation and slope agriculture which are very much prone to landslide disasters," according to the International Consortium on Landslides (ICL), United Nations University, Kyoto University and UNESCO scientists organizing the three-day international meeting on landslide prevention and damage mitigation.
Climate change may promote landslides in other ways as well. A December landslide that claimed 60 lives in Yemen was blamed on mountain boulders shifting due to changes in temperature. Other landslide inducements include earthquakes, volcanic eruption, poorly planned developments, and mining.
Among natural disasters, landslides are the seventh ranked killer, after windstorms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcano and extreme temperature, claiming 800 to 1,000 lives on average in each of the last 20 years. An average of 940 people annually were killed by landslides in the decade 1993 to 2002, most of those victims from Asia.
Large-scale landslides along coasts or in oceans can cause tsunamis; the deadliest on record was caused by a landslide in the Unzen volcano in 1792 which killed 16,000 Japanese, due to landslide debris and the resulting tsunami. Landslides occurring at the top of a volcano can trigger eruptions, most famously that of the USA’s Mount St. Helens in 1980.
Landslides also threaten some of the world’s most precious cultural sites, including Egypt’s famous Valley of the Kings, home to the Pharaohs Tombs; Lishan China, site of the Huaqing Palace, built in the Tang dynasty (618-907); and Machu Picchu, Peru, the mountaintop fortress city of the ancient Incas.
"While all regions experience landslide disasters, the harm they cause is most acute in developing countries, where the knowledge base required to identify landslide prone areas is often either non-existent or fragmentary," says Badaoui Roubhan, Chief of the UNESCO's Disaster Reduction section.