Urban Growth, Land-Use Change, and Growing Vulnerability in the Greater Himalaya Mountain Range Across India, Nepal, and Bhutan

Principal Investigator: 
Karen Seto
Yale University

Home to about 210 million people and extending over eight countries, the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is at the confluence of two major trends that together are transforming one of the most dynamic mountain systems in the world. First, the region is a hotspot for four natural hazards: earthquakes, fires, floods, and landslides. Over the past few years, the HKH region has experienced a number of devastating natural disasters, including a 7.5 magnitude Pakistan-Afghanistan earthquake in 2015, a glacial lake outburst flood in northern Bhutan in 2015, floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 that left nearly 6,000 dead and more than 100,000 people trapped, and the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015, that killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000.
Second, the HKH region is rapidly urbanizing. Fueled by migration from rural areas, valleys and plains, the growth of religious, ecological and adventure tourism, and recent social unrest, towns and urban centers are expanding. Although the region is still predominantly agrarian, migration to urban centers is increasingly an important livelihood strategy for rural households, and non-farm income is an increasing component of household incomes. The growing urban population, an urbanizing economy, and associated land use and land cover changes are transforming the Himalayas. Yet despite the vulnerability of the region and its people, the 2015 Nepal earthquake highlighted the lack of accurate and up-to-date information about urban settlements in the region and those most at risk in this coupled social-environmental system.

The proposed research aims to fill these knowledge gaps by using multi-scale and multi-source satellite data applied to novel and holistic vulnerability frameworks to answer five research questions about the HKH region:

1. How and where are urban settlements changing, and what are the associated land use and land cover changes with these changes?
2. What are the frequency, magnitude, and duration of the four dominant natural hazards—earthquake, fire, flood, and landslides, and how do they vary over time and space?
3. What is the sensitivity of the socio-economic system to different stressors?
4. Where are urban settlements most vulnerable and to what stressors are they most vulnerable?
5. What explains differences in the vulnerability of urban settlements across the HKH region?

The two primary goals of the proposed research are to 1) characterize and quantify LCLUC associated with urban settlement change, and 2) assess the vulnerability of these urban settlements to hazards.
The project will be undertaken at two spatial extents. A 30m resolution analysis will be conducted for 41 contiguous scenes for the entire Landsat TM archive (1984-present) covering an area of approximately 1.289 million km. This wall-to-wall approach using the entire Landsat archive is a marked departure from most other urban studies in the region that focus solely on a few capital or large cities and their immediate surroundings. To examine the accuracy of the Landsat analysis, we will use 2.5m resolution imagery to analyze LCLUC in three sites.
Expected project results and benefits include: New remote sensing algorithms to characterize changes in urban settlements and associated LCLUC in high mountain regions of South Asia. Empirical estimates of urban LCLUC, including transport infrastructure and the built environment in the HKH region of India, Bhutan, and Nepal. Improved scientific understanding of the spatio-temporal patterns of land use change in the HKH region.