The Haiti earthquake was disturbing. It was disturbing for professional and personal reasons. I have two simultaneous reactions: as a humanitarian, I want to help. As a mother and a daughter, I want to spend as much time as possible with my loved ones and live far from disaster zones. But then, why am I living in Kathmandu, one of the world's most at-risk cities when it comes to earthquakes?
This tragedy resonates deeply, as I have been working with the United Nations to raise awareness in Nepal about a similar catastrophic scenario. The possible scale of the disaster is so mind-boggling that often the reaction is apathy. The impact of the disaster would be so great, so devastating, what can one do that would make a difference if an earthquake were to strike?
The greatest risk is apathy. There are several cardinal truths regarding earthquakes:
* Earthquakes cannot be predicted. Most calculations of risk are based upon statistical probability, but can be off by a magnitude of years.
* Most earthquake survivors are rescued by communities themselves.?
* People are not killed by earthquakes. More than 75% are killed by falling buildings, and the rest are due to follow-on hazards such as fire and landslides.
* More survivors are then killed because there is a lack of medical service, or clean water.
As disaster risk reduction is a long-term investment, it must address the full range of hazards and risks as well as bring tangible benefits to people's lives. A range of investments would include city planning, decreasing urbanisation, ensuring there are open spaces, widening traffic arteries and evacuation routes. These require commitment by the government.
Investment at the community level is also essential, in first aid training, evacuation planning, and light search and rescue. Most survivors are rescued by friends and neighbours, so we need to invest in community disaster preparedness. We need to know where the safe places are. In the Great Kathmandu Earthquake of 1934, many people fled into Tundikhel to seek safety. If the same thing happens tomorrow, many people may die crushed against the fences that line one of the only open spaces in the centre of Kathmandu.
We need to demand better construction for those living in Kathmandu, especially for lifeline infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Implementation of a building code for earthquake resistant structures could also bring houses more in line with the climate and preserve cultural heritage (cement is not the best thermal conductive material for cold winters and strong sun). Traditional housing construction in Bhaktapur using a timber beam system may actually resist earthquakes better than some concrete structures.? We know how to engineer buildings with a greater degree of earthquake safety. But it takes money, commitment, and rigorous government regulation and inspection.
These investments will reduce the exposure of millions of Kathmandu citizens to risk, and at the same time will improve their living conditions (less congestion, better air quality, access to clean water). We need to channel outrage into action.
Some final words about my personal grief. My friend Andrea Loi perished in the Haiti earthquake last week. I remember sharing a bed in a dodgy hotel in Hinche upon our initial deployment in Haiti because we were afraid of the rats, later sharing the only house in the entire town with a flush toilet. Sitting on the balcony, we would listen to Carole King: "I feel the earth move". And now the sky has come tumbling down. I mourn the loss of my UN colleagues. And with the outrage I feel about this loss, compelled to channel this outrage into action to prevent other needless deaths.
Wendy Cue is currently the Head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kathmandu. She worked in Haiti from 1993 to 1999. The views expressed in this article do not represent an official position of the UN.