Gossip or earthquake: Which is riskier?

Seismic risk in Nepal is aggravated not only by seismic hazard and structural vulnerability but rather by marginal consultations of charlatans, lack of liability, communication failure and corruption in construction practices

As the country plans to commemorate the 19th National Earthquake Safety Day on 15 January, drills and simulations have surfaced, talks and discussions are floating on various strata and a festive mood has clicked amongst the stakeholders.

This year will go accordingly, with voluminous reports in head counts of participants, drop-cover-hold on, rallies and school children with placards and lenses flashing big crowds. Right before the Gorkha earthquake I twitted on the crestfallen preparedness in Nepal, within a minute a UN agency backlashed me stating, “Are you aware of the ‘great work’ of …?”

I wasn’t, partly because it is impossible to be convinced about imported techniques that don’t actually represent Nepal’s terrain. And everything was revealed after the Gorkha earthquake.

In late 2016, I received a letter of Prof. Rajesh Rupakhety from the University of Iceland regarding the incident in Nuwakot during the main shock of the Gorkha earthquake when two children playing on an open ground ran inside their stone masonry home and lost their lives.

Indeed, it is a serious issue, and a lesson to improve the conventional ‘awareness audiovisual reach’ too.

But the broadcast is not corrected and there is a strong perception amongst the stakeholders, ‘Quakes don’t kill people rather structures do.’ This may not hold true every time. Well-constructed and designed structures don’t kill people, only those constructed with compromised practice and resources do.

It is common to blame engineers in the social media, but the greatest share of fallacious construction goes to the owners.

If they want the desired performance level why don’t they listen to engineers and construct accordingly so that they can ask for an engineer’s liability? This will ultimately consolidate the engineering practice and reverence for engineering services. So, a paradigm shift in Nepal is to trust engineers and ask for liability too.

The other hemisphere of risk, apart from the seismic one, is the risk of charlatans. As seismic risks and earthquakes became the buzzwords after the 2000s in Nepal, almost every informed citizen has absolutely consolidated vantage, often challenging the novel findings.

Still media management has facilitated such charlatans to give irrelevant opinions. For instance, one responsible deputy director of an urban development agency opined that the existing structures are now verified to be resilient in Nepal after the Gorkha earthquake.

For many years people without basic knowledge are acting as experts, sometimes portraying unprecedented seismic risks for fame and creating panic.

This needs to be revised in Nepal otherwise gossips would surpass the seismic risks as we witnessed during the Gorkha seismic sequence. Some of the online media even predicted the date, time and magnitude of earthquakes!

Crawling reconstruction has marred the livelihood of nearly a quarter to a million families under tarps or temporary shelters. Government of Nepal is solely being blamed. This is fallacious as the government tried to impose a one door policy for response, relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts.

Protests were witnessed and the government was not able to bear the pressure from agencies. Hence, everyone was free to do whatever they liked. Some of the field practices included convincing people to change their religion, targeting political affiliations for relief distribution, collecting people and taking pictures to prepare a voluminous report.

This is the right time to ask the whereabouts of 10,000 agencies that voyaged to the earthquake affected regions. Hundreds of reports can be seen in their websites regarding their construction, but constructions don’t exist on the field.

It’s time to ask for the whereabouts of the buildings constructed by these agencies. Virtually none were responsible; and the government looked like parasites and partly paralyzed too.

Preparedness in Nepal remains confined to voluptuous write-ups. Sarcastically, they narrate some odd figures who participated in the awareness campaign. The line agencies are under trauma; and action is substituted by meetings and riots.

People who committed to serve are now concerned in pecuniary issues, and the lure of lucre has led to perilous everyday lives of quake victims.

The Government is hesitant to absorb inputs from the informed ones; experts are appointed under political affiliations and engineering is restrained. Notably, some of the reconstruction models are strictly based on emotional consultations of experts too.

Recently I discussed this with Matijin Schildkamp from Smart Shelter Foundation, and he remarked that some people who are enforcing some models are not confident themselves.

Is the government liable for any damage until occupancy limit is reached? Moreover, is the government ready to insure all buildings being constructed?

Seismic risk in Nepal is aggravated not only by seismic hazard and structural vulnerability but rather by marginal consultations of charlatans, lack of liability, communication failure, corruption in construction practices and drawing approval systems.

The 19th National Earthquake Safety Day shouldn’t be anchored within rallies and reports only as Nepal lies in one of the most active seismic regions of the world.

Gautam is a researcher in Structural Earthquake Engineering