Earthquakes know no boundaries: Nepal must brace up

On Tuesday, 12 January 2010, people across the globe heard an earth-shattering news from Haiti as the country was hit by a catastrophic earthquake of magnitude 7.0 Richter scale. There was a major damage to Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. The confirmed death of people

has crossed 150,000 and

the death toll is predicted

to arrive at more than 200,000. Public properties, important and historic infrastructures have been badly destroyed, and

about 3 million people are expected to be affected by the quake. For a poor country, it will take many decades to repair and rebuild things to put in place for Haiti and the loss of people’s lives is irreparable.

Haiti and Nepal have many similarities. Both of them among the poorest countries in the world. Both have experienced unstable politics and are hit by regular natural disasters. Both of them have their unorganised and unplanned capital city. Like Haiti, Nepal is also a vulnerable country from the disaster point of view, as experts say Nepal is in the seismically very active Himalayan mountain belt. Of all the cities in the world, Kathmandu has the highest risk, according to seismographic studies.

In the last 75 years, Nepal has experienced two major earthquakes, one in 1934 and the other one in 1988. The 8.3 Richter scale’s quake of 1934 had claimed 8,518 lives, half of it in the Kathmandu valley alone, and more than 80,000 houses were destroyed. During the quake of 1988, seven hundred twenty one people lost their lives, 6500 were injured and 22,000 houses were collapsed. An earthquake of similar magnitude as the one that hit Nepal in the past and recently to Port-au-Prince can hit Kathmandu any time. It is impossible to predict when the next earthquake will strike Nepal, however, Nepal’s seismic record indicates that earthquake of the 1934 magnitude occur approximately every 75 years which means it may occur at any time now onwards.

According to the estimates of NSET (National Society for Earthquake Technology), an earthquake on the scale of 1934 could destroy 70 percent of the valley’s buildings, 80 percent of casualties would occur as a result of people being crushed by buildings. Similarly, as per a recent report by Japan International Cooperation (JICA), 12 percent of the population will die and 50 percent of the buildings would be damaged. According to the Nepal Red Cross Society’s Earthquake Contingency Plan 2008, an earthquake measuring 7-8 Richter scale will destroy 60 percent of buildings of Kathmandu. These all studies clearly show that if a powerful earthquake takes place in the capital, the loss of life and property would be unimaginable.

During an earthquake in Kathmandu, rescue operation will be extremely difficult due to the narrow gallis. Therefore, the casualties will be increased significantly and people will die being crushed by buildings or buried under debris just because rescue vehicles and teams cannot carry out relief works in time. Not only private houses, the hospitals will also suffer as most of them are poorly built, according to a research report. Vehicular transportation will be difficult due to bridges being destroyed.

If the only one international airport would be damaged, then no international

rescue and other support could be received.

The issue should therefore be dealt politically. Look at in the world, the casualties and destruction caused by a quake can be found significantly higher in those countries which have a poor governance and unstable national politics. Tokyo often experiences a shake but the loss is very minimal just because of its good and farsighted politics of urban development.

It is not usually the earthquake itself that kills the people but the buildings and infrastructures poorly built due to lack of awareness, poverty and corruption. Therefore, good governance of the country is crucial to minimise the risks of earthquake and other natural disasters.

Nepal could have learnt good lessons from the last two big quakes of 1934 and 1988, but it seems that our leaders and urban planners have very short term memory. We hardly learnt lessons from two big disasters. Now, this is the time- the country must wake up for we are at ‘do or die’ situation and if we have to learn lessons from the past. Earthquakes cannot be stopped, but the ma-gnitude of devastation and human tragedy can be minimised if adequate precaution and preparedness are taken into consideration.

Therefore, the government should make an effective preparedness cum rescue emergency plan and be equipped with trained rescuers. Public awareness and preparedness are very crucial for earthquake mitigation. For this the government should actively engage in raising awareness among public with a priority for the people in Kathmandu as they are the most vulnerable people of the country. Halting an unorganised urbanisation in Kathmandu and initiating a good urban development with effective building code enforcement must be the priority. The building code enforcement will only become effective if it is dealt with an awareness of earthquake and incentives.

Karki is a development worker