Nepali Times
Guest Column
"I feel the earth move"


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.

All for one?- FROM ISSUE #486 (22 JAN 2010 - 28 JAN 2010)
Any day now?- FROM ISSUE #486 (22 JAN 2010 - 28 JAN 2010)

1. May
Very moving piece by Wendy Cue, thanks for writing this and for sounding a warning for us here in Nepal.

2. Mero Desh
I commend the article. But the advice includes details that should have been followed like 10 yrs ago, Reducing traffic, better building codes, wider roads etc. Now its already a concrete jungle. The only advice, I think, that can be applied are 1. Spreading awareness about the disaster. 2. Teaching everybody from school children to old people about what has to be done in case of earthquake. I think govt. should take initiative to take help from Japan as hey have robust scheme in place as they face earthquake everyday. This will lessen the panic to some extent. 3. Involving community to teach them about first aid during emergency, having a repository for food in a safe location and constantly updating and replenishing the backup food needed after disaster, 4. I also feel that the airport should be made some kind of disaster proof and must be made bigger, so that in case of emergency relief efforts can be carried out. As we all know that Kathmandu can only be accessed by air in case of disaster. 5. I also feel that every community should decide a safe place where everybody would come together for shelter after the disaster. 6. In the end and only in the end Lets pray to Pashupatinath. This has to be made the National priority and acted up as soon as possible.

3. Kiran L
While we wait for the government and our municpalities to act, I think we should prepare ourselves for the wrost individually and as communities, as other articles in this issue of Nepali Times have stressed. Wendy is right, most lives are saved by communities working together and Nepal has a good tradition of community action.

4. Johann
Given the scale of the future disaster in Nepal (we know it's going to happen, we just don't know when exactly) there should be a donor focus on this as much as there is on HIV, climate change, or on the peace process. After all, we are looking at a casualty rate running into hundreds of thousands. And if Haiti is any indication, there will be no government to take care of relief and rehabilitation. Maybe if the donors gave it a higher priority, the Nepal government would also take earthquake preparedness seriously. Let's see some money where the mouth is BEFORE the crisis, for a change and not AFTER it happens.

5. yam gurung
Nepali rulers are only busy fighthing for money and power.Not for the interest

6. yam gurung
Wendy has given red light signal to the govt of Nepal.My concern is will the Nepal govt listen and take her suggestion seriously?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)