9-15 January 2015 #740

Unnatural disaster

Earthquakes don’t kill people, weak houses and bad planning do

Next week, Nepal will mark the 80th anniversary of the Great Earthquake that killed at least 17,000 people. On a sunny winter afternoon of 15 January 1934 the earth shook violently destroying many  brick houses, temples and monuments in Kathmandu. Two of King Tribhuvan’s daughters were killed when the palace collapsed, 22 people inside an eatery in Patan were crushed. Water and sand shot out of the ground like geysers. Liquefaction caused the Bagmati to flood as if it was in a monsoon spate. Some children who had narrow escapes are now senior citizens, and they tell us the streets were unrecognisable, people walked on collapsed roof tiles to find their homes.

The 8.3 magnitude earthquake killed at least 8,000 people in the Valley which at that time had a population of about 200,000. The capital’s population has grown to 2.5 million since, the mud brick houses have been replaced by densely packed concrete buildings. Kathmandu is ranked number one on a list of top ten cities around the world most vulnerable to earthquakes.

The death and destruction from the next Big One will be unthinkable. Earthquake experts estimate that depending on the time of day, at least 100,000 people will be killed outright. Hundreds of thousands more will be seriously wounded, but will have nowhere to go because most of the hospitals will have also collapsed. Besides, the city’s narrow roads will be blocked by rubble. International relief will be delayed by damaged airports and highways.

It has been accepted wisdom that there is a Great Earthquake in Kathmandu every 80 years and the next big one is due any day. Well, if it’s any comfort, Som Nath Sapkota of the National Seismological Centre tells us (page 17) that the frequency of 8 magnitude quakes is more like 500 years. The last one in 1255 killed one-third of the Valley’s population, including King Abhaya Malla. There have been smaller quakes every 80-100 years, but as Sapkota says: “You don’t need an 8 magnitude earthquake to destroy Kathmandu, a 7 will do just fine.”

Earthquakes release tectonic tension below the Himalaya as the Indian plate pushes 2cm northwards every year, and every 500 years the rock strata snap along the Main Frontal Thrust fault that straddles the midhills. There has been no major earthquake in western Nepal for 500 years, and seismologists say that is where the next big rupture will occur. But even if an 8 magnitude quake is 800km away in western Nepal, the clay sediment of the former lakebed of Kathmandu will magnify the shaking. Earthquakes don’t kill people, weak houses and bad planning do. The haphazard and substandard new buildings in Kathmandu are ticking time-bombs like this one here (pic). Earthquakes are not ‘natural’ disasters, they are man-made.

A UNCRD (United Nations Centre for Regional Development) film which looks at the ability and ways in which communities in Nepal, India, and Vietnam can learn to live with earthquakes by altering their building techniques and daily practices.

It may be asking too much to expect a government that can’t even solve relatively minor problems like electricity, water and food supply, health care and education to prepare for an uncertain calamity in the distant future. But for Kathmandu, it’s not a question ‘if’ a Big One will hit Kathmandu, it is ‘when’. Unable to solve present crises, successive governments have been too distracted to even push through a Disaster Risk Management Act that would pave the way for a Commission to coordinate response and preparedness. Decision-making is paralysed by a turf war between the Home Ministry and the rest.

Interestingly, Nepal is further ahead than most South Asian countries in earthquake awareness work and retrofitting technology. Our Earthquake Safety in Schools campaign is regarded as a model. For now, it would be too much to expect our feckless government to help us prepare for an earthquake or its catastrophic aftermath. We must rely on municipalities to enforce compliance with building codes, communities to pre-position equipment and supplies, and individual families to have contingency plans. We need to scale up these initiatives and get institutions involved until the national government wakes up. And we don’t need a new constitution to do that.

Also Read:

Preparing to be prepared, Kunda Dixit

“Kathmandu was a ruin”, Tom Robertson

70 Years Later, Naresh Newar

Thinking the Unthinkable

Making Schools Safer, Bhrikuti Rai

Where the quake will hit hardest, Rubeena Mahato

It will happen here, Aruna Uprety

Dress Rehearsal for the Next Big One

Not if, but when, Kunda Dixit

Disaster and Development, Helen Clark