1-7 May 2015 #756

Not-so-big One

Dambar Krishna Shrestha in himalkhabar.com, 28 April

Seismologists have been warning us about a Big One in Kathmandu for quite some time. Our mountains were formed by the collision of the Indian and Tibetan plates, and they are still rising. The Indian plate is moving north at 5cm a year and this tectonic tension is released periodically, triggering major earthquakes. The worst case scenario in case of a 8 magnitude earthquake are truly frightening. Kathmandu Valley alone would see 100,000 killed outright, 200,000 wounded and 1.5 million homeless. Homes, offices, schools, hospitals would all be damaged, as well as roads and bridges. There would be no electricity and drinking water, telephone lines would also be blocked.

As it turned out, a 7.9 earthquake caused huge loss of life and loss for the nation, but there was much less damage than expected in Kathmandu. As we go to press, the death toll has crossed 5,000 and is expected to at least double. The important World Heritage sites of the Valley have been destroyed. Many villages in Gorkha to Sindupalchok have been reduced to rubble.

Since Kathmandu is situated on a former lake bed, the soil magnifies the shaking in an earthquake which means even well-built structures are vulnerable to collapse. But many houses, offices and apartments do not meet the minimum safety criteria. Even when a 6.0 quake struck Udaypur 200km away in 1990, buildings in Bhaktapur collapsed killing 12.

Despite all this, last week’s quake had a lower casualty rate than expected in Kathmandu. One reason could be that it was Saturday, so schools and government offices were closed. The group NSET had predicted that an earthquake like 1934 would kill up to 43,000 students and teachers if it happened during school hours.

In 1934, Kathmandu Valley’s population was 250,000, today it is nearly 3 million and we live in densely-packed neighbourhoods and buildings not constructed to withstand strong earthquakes. There is no real disaster preparedness plan, or a coordinated approach to post-earthquake search, rescue and relief. There is little attention to ensuring water supply and food, or managing epidemics in shelters. And even after four days, the government was not able to distribute enough tents in the capital. Specialised expertise in digging people from collapsed concrete structures are not adequate.

A cover story in Himal Khabarpatrika (pictured) four years ago to mark National Earthquake Safety Day predicted that a big earthquake could happen any day and it listed what needed to be done to ensure better preparedness: food and water stockpiles, pre-positioning first aid, emergency and digging equipment, family and community contingency plans. We can be thankful that the quake this time was not as destructive as predicted, even though the loss of life was great.

Read also:

Giving to the living

Shaking things up, Editorial

Langtang is gone, Sahina Shrestha

Monumental loss, Stéphane Huët

Mapping the aftermath, Ayesha Shakya

Microcosm of a calamity, Cynthia Choo and Sonia Awale

Teacher's tragedy, Cynthia Choo

Coming out stronger from crisis, Anjana Rajbhandary

Believe it, or not, Tsering Dolker Gurung

A slow start, David Seddon

The earthquake from above, Kunda Dixit

Surviving trauma, Anjana Rajbhandary

In photos: Nepal Earthquake, Bikram Rai

Thanking the Living Goddess for life, Min Ratna Bajracharya

Preparing to be prepared, Kunda Dixit