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Report on human-triggered landslides calls for effort on prevention

Landslides triggered by human activity are on the rise globally and researchers behind the report are calling for engineers to focus efforts on preventable slope accidents.

chorabari glaciers kedarnath 17 panorama

chorabari glaciers kedarnath 17 panorama

Source: Vaibhav Kaul, University of Sheffield

The Kedarnath landslide in India’s Uttarakhand state occurred in June 2013 and claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people

Researchers from the University of Sheffield revealed that landslides resulting from human activity have increased for the first time following a study of 4,800 fatal landslides between 2004 and 2016.

The report, which was published in full in the European Geosciences Union journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, found that over 700 were the result of human activity and that construction work, and illegal mining, as well as the unregulated cutting of hills (carving out land on a slope) caused most of these human-induced landslides.

“We were aware that humans are placing increasing pressure on their local environment, but it was surprising to find clear trends within the database that fatal landslides triggered by construction, illegal hillcutting and illegal mining were increasing globally during the period of 2004 and 2016,” said University of Sheffield department of geography postdoctoral researcher Melanie Froude, who was a lead author of the study.

While the trend is global, Asia is the most affected continent. “All countries in the top 10 for fatal landslide triggered by human activity are located in Asia,” said Froude.

India is at the top of the list and accounts for 20% of these events. According to Fourde, it is also the country where human-triggered fatal landslides are increasing at the highest rate, followed by Pakistan, Myanmar and the Philippines.

The study follows on from data on fatal landslides collected by landslide specialist Dave Petley, who is professor and vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield. Petley started collating the data after realising that many databases on natural disasters were “significantly underestimating the extent of landslide impact.”

The researchers identified a total of 4800 fatal landslides, excluding those triggered by earthquakes, that occurred around the world between 2004 and 2016 and caused a total of about 56,000 deaths.

Since 2004, Petley has painstakingly collected data on fatal landslides from online English-language media reports. To confirm the news were accurate, Petley – and more recently Froude, who reviewed all landslide accounts – checked each report whenever possible against government and aid agency articles, academic studies or through personal communication. Details about the landslides, such as location, impacts or cause, were added to their Global Fatal Landslide Database.

“Collecting these reports and organising them into a database shows us where landslides are frequently harming people, what causes these landslides and whether there are patterns in fatal landslide occurrence over time. The database provides us with an overview of the impact of landslides on society,” said Petley.

Aside from Asia, where 75% of landslides in the database occurred, the areas most affected are in Central and South America, the Caribbean islands, and East Africa. In Europe, the Alps are the region with more fatal landslides.

In support of past studies, the researchers also found that 79% of landslides in their database were triggered by rainfall. Most events happen during the northern hemisphere summer, when cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are more frequent and the monsoon season brings heavy rains to parts of Asia.

The Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences study highlights that fatal landslides are more common in settlements, along roads, and at sites rich in precious resources. They occur more frequently in poor countries and affect poor people disproportionately, the researchers said.

In the Himalayan mountain region, especially in Nepal and India, many of the fatal landslides triggered by construction occurred on road construction sites in rural areas, while in China many happened in urban building sites.

“The prevalence of landslides in these settings suggests that regulations to protect workers and the public are insufficient or are not being sufficiently enforced. In the case of roads, maintaining safety during construction is difficult when it is economically unviable to completely shut roads because alternative routes involve substantial detours,” said Froude.

Landslides triggered by hillcutting are mostly a problem in rural areas, where many people illegally collect material from hillslopes to build their houses. “We found several incidences of children being caught-up in slides triggered as they collected coloured clay from hillslopes, for decoration of houses during religious festivals in Nepal. Educating communities who undertake this practise on how to do it safely, will save lives,” Froude added.

“With appropriate regulation to guide engineering design, education and enforcement of regulation by specialist inspectors, landslides triggered by construction, mining and hillcutting are entirely preventable,” Froude said.

Petley added: “The study highlights that we need to refocus our efforts globally on preventable slope accidents.”


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