The United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 27 agreed that developed countries would provide finances for the recovery and rebuilding of poorer countries affected by climate-related disasters. European counties pledged more than The United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27 agreed that developed countries would provide finances for the recovery and rebuilding of poorer countries affected by climate-related disasters. European counties pledged more than $300 million.
However, several questions need to be addressed with regard to creating institutional arrangements and governance mechanisms. One of the vexed questions pertains to the selection of sites for new infrastructure and development projects in hazard-prone areas.
The internalisation of risk assessment in proposed projects remains very poor in most developing countries, where disaster consciousness is low, especially among project proponents and Ministries that grant clearances to projects. Many so-called development projects create new risks or exacerbate existing ones. This points to the need to establish critical linkages between development, disasters, and climate change. In academic terms, although these linkages are well-established, governance and decision-making within most line departments continue as usual, oblivious of climate change or disaster risk.
The proposed projects in Nicobar district serve as an example. These include an international container transshipment terminal, a greenfield international airport, a gas-based power plant, and a township complex spread over 166 sq km of pristine coastal systems and tropical forests. It is also expected that 6.5 lakh people will finally inhabit the island, whereas the current population is only 8,500 at Great Nicobar; the total population of the island chain across 1,000 km is less than 4.5 lakh.
Environmentalists and those familiar with the islands raised several objections and red flags when feedback on the project was invited, but all of these have been disregarded by deflecting key concerns.
While the draft environment impact assessment (EIA) records the occurrence of earthquakes in this region at several places, the risk assessment element is missing in it, stating only the mechanisms for disaster response. A risk analysis was therefore strongly recommended before proceeding with the proposed projects with an estimated investment of Rs.72,000 crore.
The authors pointed out in a letter to the authorities that according to scientific evidence based on a simple analysis of the seismic activity in the region, the proposed container terminal would be located at a site that experiences about 44 earthquakes every year (444 earthquakes in the past 10 years). In view of the instability of the island and the surrounding region, the project in its current form needs to be reconsidered. Should another major quake take place, the entire public investment on infrastructure would be at risk and the resultant oil and chemical spill would cause a major environmental disaster in an area that is renowned globally for its unrivalled biodiversity on our planet.
The letter reminded the government that the lighthouse at Indira Point, the southernmost tip of Great Nicobar Island, which was on high ground before the undersea earthquake of 2004, is now under water, indicating a land subsidence of about 4 metres.
The Andaman–Nicobar region is extremely prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes because of its geological location. The region located in the Himalayan collision zone is in the highest seismic-hazard zone (category V). The Andaman–Nicobar subduction system, which runs north-south, meets its onshore continuation, the Indo-Burmese arc (17–278 N), in the north. Scientists (Aswini et al., 2020; Li et al., 2008, Singh and Moeremans 2017) have demonstrated that the Indo-Burmese range, which lies at the intersection of the Sumatra–Andaman and Indian subduction zones, is structurally complex and seismically active to depths of about 150 km.
In addition, the island has a heavily folded topography with a few longitudinal thrusts and a number of diagonal wrenches, or faults. Most of the valleys in the central part of the Great Nicobar region are attributed to fault lines (Curray, 2005). Therefore, the region experiences significant-damaging non-tsunami and tsunami earthquakes (Mishra et al., 2007).
According to data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), 442 earthquakes occurred with a magnitude of 4.0 to 6.6 within a 150 km radius from the centre of the island between 2010 and 2020, resulting in an average rate of more than 42 earthquakes/year (USGS, 2010-2020). Most of the earthquakes (more than 80 per cent) occurred near the intersection of the Eastern Margin Fault (EMF), Diligent Fault (DF) (right lateral-fault), Andaman–Nicobar Fault (ANF), Great Sumatra Fault (GSF), and West Andaman Fault (WAF) as well as along the southern margin of the ‘east and west Andaman sea’ plate boundaries, which is located on the eastern side of the islands at close proximity to the site where the container terminal is proposed.
An earthquake’s destructive potential is proportional to its energy. Most of the earthquakes originate in the margins of Great Nicobar Islands, and the epicentre depth and magnitudes range from 10-89 km and 4.0 to 6.6 mb (body wave magnitude), respectively. Most of these seismic events consist of magnitudes ranging from 4.0 to 6.6. Earthquakes with magnitudes larger than 5.0 can potentially cause massive damage to infrastructure.
More than 80 per cent of the earthquakes originate within 100 km in the eastern margin in the Great Nicobar region, which might damage any infrastructure development significantly. Shallower earthquakes were also observed within a 100-km radius of the Great Nicobar region. According to USGS data, the increase in induced seismic activities in 2010-20, the potential for shallower origins and greater magnitudes should all be a matter of serious concern to officials responsible for public safety and welfare and those responsible for proposing such a large investment. The earthquakes can be potentially damaging and the country should certainly look into the nature and form of infrastructure and its design in that area.
Therefore, the recent increased rate of induced seismicity in Great Nicobar Islands points to the need for a systematic investigation into the very idea of a container terminal, the safety of the infrastructure, potential economic losses, and the environment damage caused by a large earthquake or a tsunami. The possible risks need to be factored in while considering any infrastructure development in the region.
Re-evaluate disaster risks
It is necessary to systemically re-evaluate the disaster risks involved in infrastructure development plans proposed by NITI Aayog for the Great Nicobar Island.
We hope due attention will be paid to this aspect of possible damage and destruction of national property that could be caused by future earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, especially when India has taken the lead in establishing a global Coalition of Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI). The obvious and logical action would be to undertake systematic risk assessment in order to undertake an analysis of whether the benefit accrued through this mega investment is worth the risk.
Strangely, the response of the project proponent was:
1. That all the structures for the development will adhere to the relevant standard codes to make them earthquake proof. 2. Detailed disaster management plan (DMP) in the event of an earthquake/tsunami (disaster).
Following building codes is one thing, but going ahead and building on a fault line is reckless.
Clearly, the caution that should be exercised on the basis of scientific evidence seems to be lost, as there is no mention anywhere in the project of risk assessment, risk of climate change, or risk of tsunami and earthquakes in the region.
It is apparent that the government of India continues to be response-centric while repeatedly claiming to have shifted the paradigm towards prevention and mitigation. None of the projects seem to be risk-informed, and the government’s claims ring hollow as public funds are invested in areas prone to severe hazards.
Janki Andharia is Professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies (JTSDS), TataInstitute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Dr V. Ramesh is Assistant Professor at JTSDS, and Dr Ravinder Dhiman is Chairperson, Centre for Geoinformatics.
- The Andaman–Nicobar region is extremely prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes because of its geological location.
- According to data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), 442 earthquakes occurred with a magnitude of 4.0 to 6.6 within a 150 km radius from the centre of the island between 2010 and 2020, resulting in an average rate of more than 42 earthquakes/year.
- More than 80 per cent of the earthquakes originate within 100 km in the eastern margin in the Great Nicobar region, which might damage any infrastructure development significantly.
- It is necessary to systemically re-evaluate the disaster risks involved in infrastructure development plans proposed by NITI Aayog for the Great Nicobar Island.