MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
Many of us surveying Nepal's deadlocked politics may think it is a disaster, but it will pale in comparison to the apocalyptic aftermath of the next big earthquake that could strike Kathmandu any day now.
Yes, it's that time of year again as we prepare to mark Earthquake Day on 15 January to commemorate the magnitude 8.0 earthquake in 1934 that killed about 10,000 people in Kathmandu Valley.
We have had three governments since the last Earthquake Day, and the good news is that the Prime Minister's Office has begun to review the regulatory mechanism for school and hospital construction. The government has set aside money in the budget for school retrofitting. The Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium has raised $55 million out of the targeted $140 million for its risk reduction plan.
This will be enough to retrofit 250 schools in the next two years, 275 of the targeted 1,000 VDCs are already working on a community preparedness plan. A US Army team is in Kathmandu this week to do a geological assessment of the survivability of the only runway in the country's only international airport.
Now, the bad news. Ever since the cabinet in 2009 passed a preparedness strategy to set up a Disaster Management Authority, the legislation has been languishing in parliament. Four years later, there has been almost no movement in ratifying this crucial legislation, signifying apathy that borders on criminal negligence on the part of our political leadership and law-makers.
One could argue that the CA has other pressing matters in its hands, but the peace and constitution process is deadlocked, too. All this shows a fatalistic head-in-the-sand approach to dealing with a disaster that is one day sure to come.
At 6:25 PM on Sunday, 18 September, 2011 a 6.9 magnitude earthquake under Mt Kangchenjunga shook Nepal and large parts of India. Nearly 120 people were killed, three of them in Kathmandu which was 300 km away from the epicenter. The Haiti quake this week two years ago showed what even a 7.0 magnitude quake can do: more than 200,000 people were killed.
In September, the National Emergency Operation Centre built two years ago with Australian assistance was put to the test as a clearing house for information, and to coordinate response. But official response was slow and woefully inadequate. The Prime Minister flew off to New York later that night without even bothering to find out the extent of the damage. There was no aerial reconnaissance the next morning to gauge casualties and spot potentially disastrous river blockages. It was a miracle the death toll wasn't higher.
Nature gave us a wake-up call, but we slept right through it. A coalition government that has earned a disagreeable reputation for greed and graft seems least bothered about 'natural' calamities in the future.
So, as often happens in Nepal, we have to depend on individuals, families and local communities to do their bit. Groups like the National Society of Earthquake Technology (NSET) are working with schools and wards to bolster preparedness. Nepali earthquake experts, ironically, are more in demand outside Nepal than here, and foreigners seem more worried about what is in store for us than we are.
A 1998 study of nearly 400 government schools in Kathmandu Valley showed that a 1934 type earthquake would kill nearly 30,000 students and teachers outright and injure another 43,000. Since that survey, the number of schools has more than doubled.
A quarter of them need to be torn down, half can be retrofitted. After a quake, the injured can't be rushed to hospitals because roads will be blocked and hospitals will have also collapsed. All but two of Kathmandu's hospitals are equipped to withstand strong shaking, and even if they survive the diesel for generators and medicines will soon run out.
A 8.0 magnitude earthquake epicentred near Kathmandu would kill 100,000-200,000 people depending on the time of day and 700,000 will be injured and up to 1.5 million will be homeless. Such a quake is long overdue.
It's no wonder that international seismic experts have slotted Kathmandu Valley as the number one among top ten cities around the world vulnerable to a catastrophic earthquake. The government seems to be finally waking up to the task ahead, but time is of the essence.
Kathmandu is woefully unprepared for the next Big One