An earthquake of similar, if not greater, magnitude as the one that hit Gujarat last Friday can hit Kathmandu anytime. Bur. experts assure us, the scale of devastation and human tragedy can be minimised if adequate precautions are taken and preparations made, "It\'s not the earthquakes that kill people, it\'s the constructions we build," says Ramesh Guragain, structural engineer with the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET-Nepal).
Communities can be important contributors to the tragedy-in terms of minimising or maximising the scale. Decisions on the kind of houses we build are critical-well-structured and strongly built houses are less risk to our own lives and that of our neighbours during an earthquake. But it appears that Valley residents are least bothered about earthquake-resistant housing. Studies reveal that about 60 percent of Valley buildings are non-engineered. Builders are required to acquire official permits from their concerned municipality offices, but the rules, in most cases, are twisted to fit the immediate needs of the house-owners and the officials at the permit sections. An official at the Building Permit Section in Kathmandu revealed that almost a third of the houses constructed are illegal.
A major lesson to be learnt from the devastation in Gujarat is that house-owners must invest to make their houses safe from earthquakes. The seismic record of the region suggests that a major earthquake occurs approximately every 75 years and the next one is likely to happen in the near future. And what better than a tragic statistic to highlight the consequences of criminal negligence than the fact that 80 percent of structures that collapsed in Gujarat had violated the Building Code of India.
A joint NSET-Nepal and GeoHazard International loss-estimation stud}\' indicates that 60 percent of Kathmandu Valley buildings are likely to suffer heavy damage, many beyond repair, if a tremor of the intensity of the 1934 mababhukampn were to strike again. Tens of thousands of lives will be snuffed out under the rubble, while nearly a hundred thousand will sustain grievous injuries. Apart from housing, heavy damages to public utilities would make life in the Valley a nightmare.
It is estimated that half the bridges, 10 percent of paved roads, 95 percent of water supply lines, 60 percent of telephone lines and 40 percent of electric lines will be unusable.
The terror of the 1934 earthquake has almost faded from public memory, but what is more disturbing is that authorities in Nepal are even neglecting recent lessons, like those from the 1988 earthquake that devastated the eastern part of the country. A Building Code, crucial to checking unauthorised constructions, was drafted two years ago but has not been implemented yet. Some groups of police, military, Red Cross personnel and doctors have been trained, but the numbers will prove inadequate in the time of a disaster.
"We are vulnerable to disasters," says Meen Bahadur Paudel Chhetri, chief of the Disaster Relief Section at the Home Ministry. Government officials have been talking, but so far no emergency response plan has been formulated. "The government is paying attention only to post-disaster preparedness but is neglecting pre-disaster preparedness. With only 25 percent of what will eventually be needed to handle post-disaster re-construction, we can perform miracles if it is invested in pre-disaster preparedness," says Mahesh Nakarmi, project manager of Kathmandu Valley Earthquake Risk Management Project.
Apart from institutional preparedness, preparations at the community level can make all the difference during a disaster. The Gujarat quake showed us that locals could be the most effective rescuers and the first help for the injured and those in need of any help in such situations. Locals and local communities are actors who make the difference between life and death for victims during what disaster professionals describe as the "24 golden hours" after a disaster hits. Communities should be trained in disaster management to fill the gap in assistance that is likely to occur in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and until external or professional help arrives.
Nepal\'s attempts to educate and train communities in disaster management are limited to the token celebration of Earthquake Safety Day, and official disaster relief mechanisms reach down only to the district levels. Community preparedness for emergencies and disasters can be initiated from Kathmandu Valley. Ward 31 of Kathmandu, with its active participation in community-level disaster management training, has already shown the way. It is a good example of authorities getting communities involved.