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The Big One

Saturday, January 16th, 2010


An earthquake hitting Kathmandu Valley is like all-out nuclear war. If you think about it too much you’ll go mad.

So most people try not to worry too much and get on with their lives. The experts say it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we will see a repeat of the 1934 jolt along the Nepal-Bihar fault that registered 8.3 on the Richter scale.

The next time the epicenter could be in Rasuwa or southern Lalitpur where there are other fault lines. It could be in western Nepal, where a 300-year old seismic gap (no big earthquake to release the tectonic strain building up in the crust) is waiting to rumble.

There is an escarpment ridge on the Siwalik range, East of Hetauda, that looks as if the entire mountain has tilted on its side. A geologist once told me the 1934 earthquake pushed this entire ridge up by 3 metres, lifting it up and northwards along a 4km long outcrop.

The hard igneous rock of the Indian subcontinent that broke loose from Gondwananland is still pushing into and under the softer Eurasian continent. There is a tremendous amount of energy stored in the elasticity of the folding rocks. The subterranean strata snap periodically under the strain and that is when the mountains are pushed up in sudden jerky movements.

What has changed since the last earthquake is that Nepal has become the most densely populated mountain region on earth. Rapid urbanisation has tripled Kathmandu Valley’s population over the past 20 years. Cities like Pokhara have dramatically expanded in size.

Looking at the devastation in Haiti this week–the absence of government and relief, the social anarchy–it is not difficult to imagine Kathmandu’s fate. Like Haiti, we have no disaster preparedness plan. Nepal and Haiti are both the poorest countries in their regions. Both have unplanned and haphazard urban growth. Port-au-Prince’s advantage is that even if the airport is destroyed, relief can come from the sea.

Our only advantage is the knowledge that the next ‘Big One’ can happen any day. The Kathmandu Valley lies on a seismic zone that has historically had 8 magnitude quakes every 75 years. We can’t say we weren’t warned. There is no excuse not to be prepared. Here are some worst-case scenarios I ferreted out of some disaster experts. It scared the living daylights out of me:

Magnitude 8.3 on a winter evening with brisk westerly wind: Eighty percent of Kathmandu’s buildings collapse at a time when most people are at home preparing dinner. Gas cyclinders explode and kitchen fires spread. Fanned by the wind, the city is engulfed in a firestorm. There is no escape because Kathmandu has almost no open spaces left. Almost as many people are burnt alive as are crushed by falling buildings.

Severe earthquake at 1AM: Most people are sleeping at home. Maximum casualties result from crushed buildings. Those rushing to the streets are buried by falling cantilever balconies. There is no light or excavating equipments. Streets are blocked by debris. Most hospitals are damaged. The city wakes up to the horrific sight of complete devastation. When people get no food, medical care or help to rescue trapped relatives, there is looting and riots.

Magnitude 8 at 11AM on a monsoon morning after days of heavy rain: Kathmandu’s topsoil liquefies (like Mexico City in 1985), buildings collapse and the ruins “float” on ground that has turned into paste. The heaviest casualties are in collapsed government buildings, offices and schools. Airport runway is swallowed up by liquefaction and is unusable. Landslides wipe out all highways. International relief is dropped by parachute, but arrives days later.

The bad news is that even the best-case scenario points towards casualties in the tens of thousands and major damage to infrastructure. The government has drafted a disaster preparedness and relief plan, but the legislation is sitting on some desk in Singha Darbar.

With help from NGOs like National Society for Earthquake Technology and municipalities, some wards of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have started to stock up on digging equipments, and drawn up emergency plans for evacuation, shelter, medical treatment and relief. But most wards have no plans at all. The reality is we are not prepared for the Big One, and it is going to be individuals and communities who have to look after their own.

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15 Responses to “The Big One”

  1. Tweets that mention East West | Travel Blog by Kunda Dixit | Nepali Times | » Blog Archive » The Big One -- on Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Prajwal Tuladhar, Nepali Times. Nepali Times said: The Big One: An earthquake hitting Kathmandu Valley is like an all-out nuclear war. You’ll go mad if you think abo… […]

  2. r bista on Says:

    As soon as I heard about Haiti I thought about the Kathmandu valley, and how bad something similar would be there. The government and people owe it to themselves to be prepared. Better building regulations. More open spaces. Disaster preparedness plans. Relief and shelter plans. Equipment (medical, digging) stored in earthquake-safe places. Earthquake rescue training, etc. The only good news is that money is pouring into relief for Haiti, and no doubt would for Nepal too. It is just too slow, and too late for the thousands who have already lost homes and lives. Invest now in a safer future, Nepal.

  3. May on Says:

    This blog is very scary, I don’t think I will be able to sleep well tonight. The good news is that some communities are getting together because of the awareness spread by NSET and others.

  4. haitian « chang* on Says:

    […] valley, is another haiti just waiting to happen, as hauntingly predicted by kunda dixit on the nepali times blog. the tune is the same: a long overdue earthquake, a dense and haphazard urban layout, with no […]

  5. hawai on Says:

    how about magnitude 4?

  6. S Bajracharya on Says:

    The earthquake in Haiti is a wake up call for Kathmandu and the government of Nepal. We’ve had 2 major “nabbey salko bhuichalo”. A 8.0, even a 7.0 Richter scale hitting Kathmandu or close by would be very very disastrous.

    Time to prepare is NOW.

  7. himal pahad on Says:

    This comment has been removed by the moderator.

  8. Sunil on Says:

    Mr. Dixit,

    It is a well known fact that earthquake exceeding 5.5 in Richter scale will bring devastation. What you have indicated in the writing is nothing new. Anyone who knows some earthquake science knows the pain of earthquake aftermaths.

    What people don’t know is the necessity of preparedness prior to the big one. Readers need to be told that they need to have a shed separate from their houses where they store some food, water, digging equipments, few meters of strong ropes ,tents, clothes and some cooking utensils.

  9. harka on Says:

    Everone talks about worst case scenario about what will happen and how many will die….. rather than dwelling on the outcome, can someone write an article on what one should do individually and as a family to mitigate this risk. For example making sure you have a box somewhere in a safe location stacked with basic food like rice, dal, chura, water purifer etc things that will not go bad for a long time. Have Tents and sleeping bags etc…. Lets dwell on what needs to be done to reduce the risk of such disaster. This would be a greater help than scaring the shits of people reading the article.

  10. Tshering on Says:

    Great article. This seems like the fate of the Nepalese people. I cant imagine how Kathmandu would look, god forbid if earthquake like the one in Haiti takes place. I assume more than 90% population in Kathmandu would be gone. Hope our government doesnt take this easy and keep it for the last moment.

  11. Praz Shakya on Says:

    Mr.Dixit left out a few scenarios:

    1) Magnitude of 8 early morning at 6 a.m. right after “civilian Supremecists” enforce a bandh. Do you wait for young communist democrats to call the bandh off before relief efforts undergo?

    2)Magnitude of 8 on 27th may 11:59:59 pm. CA would have drafted the constitution on time, if it wasn’t for the damn earthquake.

    3)Magnitude of 8 anyday, during rush hour. Motorcycle riders would just ride through the rubble, ride over rubble,ride on debris,shovel debris and make way, to get to thier destination as soon as possible, to bypass the traffic jam. Major junctions will have rubbles cleared by these traffic law not abiding junkies: a good start already.

    4)Magnitude of 8 one day before doctor’s shut down emergency rooms and hospitals as part of thier whatever agitation. Bummer. They should not have taken the hypocratic oathe at the first place.

  12. Portlander on Says:

    Hello Mr. Dixit,

    The situation in Haiti did worry me about the same event occurring in Kathmandu. We must learn from the mistakes of others. We talk about the government being able to draft a plan for such an incident, but in a country where every individual is struggling to get their basic needs fulfilled and the government people trying to hold on to their job, people are just not capable of thinking ahead. But the ones who have future insights or for the NSET (National Society of Earthquake Technology) must commit to stepping up and doing the best they can by the means of educating people or plan their own individual rescue plan.

    Mr. Dixit thank you for your duty to bring this topic in the lime light for all the Nepalese readers.

  13. hange on Says:

    Sunil, harke, et al., the entire point of the article is to scare the crap out of people and, moreover, our docile politicians into a plan of earthquake preparedness. While stocking water and chura is all well and good, it will serve little to those who are crushed by our over-use of bricks and cement. It is a well known fact that wooden (and even mud) structures are far more resilient than concrete ones as the latter is brittle. While encased iron rods help in cases where it’s actually been used, this may save the overall structure but the walls in between the reinforced pillars are still made up of bricks and people will perish or be injured by an avalanche of bricks. We need to reinforce our building codes which we currently woefully disregard (just like everything else).

    I believe that 80percent is a gross underestimate: an 8.0 on the Richter scale will wipe out the valley with the death toll dependent on the time of day as indicated in the article. Pointing out the gas fires is a key point. One thing that the article should mention is a simple one: duck and cover. Running out of houses may not do the trick but ducking under a desk, table, or doorframe may prevent injuries from falling bricks (and, possibly, even from “pancaking” houses in catastrophic failures depending on the strength of the table/desk). On the plus side, Kathmandu will have the chance to have a planned city: essentially starting over from the bottom up. This is not meant to be dark humour: it may, indeed, be the only positive we take away from such a devastating experience. Also, let’s hope that such a calamity will offer the chance to unite and help one another as opposed to the current fractious politics. But that’s probably too much to hope for with the Maoists and other political parties quickly holding bandas to protest inefficient government response to such a disaster (assuming there is anything to actually close down).

  14. Norbu on Says:

    Getting prepared for haiti like situation is wise but also taking worries in advance is not wise either. Nothing in this world is granted forever, when it happens, it happens like that. I haven’t thought that there will be a massacre in Narayanhiti palace, even our deceased king and queen never thought of such tragedy in store. So, when the misfortune strikes, it will strike without warning, no one can stop it, then why worry too much in advance, instead learn to realize that nothing is permanent in this world, everything is subject to change and decay. Think on the fruition of causes and causalities, do always wholesome deeds, earn good virtues each day as this will be gained back in the next!

  15. Prerana on Says:

    Forbes has listed Kathmandu number one in “areas most at risk for seismic calamity.”

    “Kathmandu, Nepal, ranked first in the 2001 study, followed by Istanbul, Turkey; Delhi, India; Quito, Ecuador; Manila, Philippines; and Islambad/Rawalpindi, Pakistan–all of which could expect fatalities in the tens of thousands if disaster struck. The only first-world cities on the list were in Japan: Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe. Fatalities in these cities were estimated in the hundreds, not thousands. Port-au-Prince was not on the list.”

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