By Timothy Brown:
In the days immediately following last year’s devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal, Yale faculty, staff, and students worked round the clock to assist with rescue and relief efforts. They translated UN reports for local Nepalese in New Haven and used social media to help check on the status of family and friends in Nepal.
But despite such an overwhelmingly positive response to the immediate crisis, Alark Saxena’07 M.E.M., ’15 Ph.D., an Associate Research Scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES) and program director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative (YHI), was troubled by a persistent question: How can a research university like Yale actually help to rebuild a country?
“I was in Nepal right after earthquake and I asked people, ‘What do you need?’” Saxena recalls. “And everyone said, ‘We need help,’ but they didn’t know exactly what help they needed because they were just so overwhelmed by all sorts of challenges.”
Saxena, an expert on climate change resilience, found an answer while touring the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an organization of eight member nations working to improve livelihoods and environmental sustainability throughout the Himalaya. While touring their headquarters in Kathmandu, Saxena observed a geographic information systems (GIS) lab where about 30 volunteers with only basic computer literacy skills struggled to identify and map landslides. All under the guidance of just one person: a man named Deo Raj.
“There was only one guy training them,” Saxena recalls. “And that’s what happens during an emergency. People have to deliver — you have a hard time thinking about the next five or six steps because you’re stuck on the first. It almost took me pulling [Deo Raj] aside and saying, ‘Talk to me. What do you want? How can we help you?’”
From this brief conversation, the Yale Himalaya Hazard Mapping Team was born.