September 18 was a dress rehearsal for the Next Big One that is bound to hit Kathmandu Valley sooner or later. If a 6.9 magnitude quake 270 km away caused so much damage and even fatalities in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, imagine a replay of an 8 magnitude earthquake like the one that devastated the Valley in 1934.
On Sunday, it was only a tremor in Kathmandu yet there was confusion and panic. People jumped out of windows, parliamentarians stampeded. The cell phone network was immediately overwhelmed. Pre-planning is the key, especially for disasters that we know are coming. There wasn't much of that in evidence on Sunday night.
At first light the next morning, there should have been aerial reconnaissance of eastern Nepal to assess the damage. There could have been massive landslides blocking the Arun and Tamor or their tributaries, impounding water and unleashing flashfloods in the narrow valleys downstream. Such disasters have occurred before in Nepal, the floods killing more people than the original earthquake.
This should have been the job of the newly created Disaster Risk Reduction Centre under the home ministry. Yet, all it did was play a passive coordination role. The prime minister and deputy prime minister both flew off to New York, and our foot-in-the-mouth home minister told parliament he prayed earthquakes would not happen elsewhere, not in Nepal. The dress rehearsal was a disaster.
The lesson from Haiti is that a major catastrophe here will overwhelm such a feckless government. Response will be chaotic and uncoordinated, especially since communications and transportation will be destroyed. The dyfunctionality of the Nepali state is a given, the question is what are we going to do despite that. We will probably have to fall back on communities, families and individuals to be prepared for risk reduction, rescue and relief.
International help will take at least three days to get to Kathmandu, and will probably have to be para-dropped since the only runway of the only international airport may be damaged. Highways and bridges will probably be gone. We cannot expect much help from India since a major earthquake in Nepal will also seriously affect the densely populated Indo-Gangetic plains.
The forecast scenarios are staggering. Historical records show that there is a 8 magnitude earthquake in central Nepal every 80 years or so. Experts estimate an earthquake of that intensity would kill outright up to 100,000 people in the Valley alone. Depending on the time of day, a majority of them could be school children. The projected 300,000 severely injured would have no hospital to go to since most of them will have collapsed. Some 1.5 million residents of the capital will be homeless.
As happened in Haiti, there will be a great exodus of the Valley population on foot to the hinterland. International relief should therefore be targeted at the moving population, and not concentrated in the areas with most visible physical damage. It should be a priority to help the displaced to stay in host families or communities, the inftrastructure of the capital will not be able to support them. Emergency food aid, health, education and job creation should go to the rural areas where the internally displaced have migrated to. Rehabilitation should be decentralised to share the burden.
Kathmandu itself needs a plan for shelters and mobile clinics in open spaces, pre-positioned water and digging equipment. Prioritised rubble clearing is a must since rescue vehicles will otherwise not have access to the devastated city core.
Nepal's politics will be in disarray, the government will probably be paralysed with shock at a time when its rapid response will be needed the most. Learning from Sunday, our legislators should immediately pass the bill to set up a National Commission for Disaster Relief Management.
Western Nepal hasn't seen a major earthquake for 300 years, and tremendous tension has built up in the colliding tectonic plates below. This is bad news for big towns like Pokhara and Kathmandu since alluvial soil magnifies shaking. When the Big One does hit one day soon, it will make the casualties and physical damage of Sunday evening's quake look like picnic.
We got failing grades for the response this time around. It is a wake-up call to get our act together for the real thing.
CCTV recording of the effect of the quake at a supermarket in Lazimpat.
Nepal quake stirs concerns for capital
Mindquakes, RABI THAPA
The Kathmandu Literary Jatra held through rain and shine, but did its impact match up to the earthquake at the end?