This article was first published in March 2011. It is republished to accompany the release of Himal Southasian’s new documentary nine months after the April 2015 earthquake: Natural Event, Manmade Disaster
Of the countries in Southasia, only Sri Lanka and the Maldives are not classified as being at high risk from catastrophic earthquakes. The rest have swords hanging over their heads. Although the reason for this is tectonic, the high risk actually stems from government apathy, short-term political horizons and a fatalistic culture that often blames earthquakes on a divine curse. As the oft repeated saying goes, earthquakes do not kill people – badly built buildings do. And by not enforcing building codes, and not having an effective disaster-preparedness plan, millions of citizens throughout the region are today at high risk of death and disability.
There is a tendency to call an earthquake a ‘natural’ disaster. The geophysical forces that lead to the rupture of the Earth’s crust are indeed natural, but most deaths are caused by the collapse of substandard manmade structures. A magnitude 8 earthquake along the Indus-Ganga plain would be magnified by the shaking alluvium, and could cause widespread devastation in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The quake would be felt right across North India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even moderate shaking in the Kathmandu Valley could cause serious destruction and loss of life. The prospect of a major earthquake is therefore like that of a nuclear war: you don’t want to think about it. But it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we will see a repeat of the great earthquakes that have devastated the Subcontinent throughout history.
An even more worrying prospect is the convergence of the risk of an earthquake with the effects of climate change. Global warming has caused large lakes to form high in the Himalaya of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet. A major earthquake in northeastern Nepal could burst the banks of these lakes, and simultaneously unleash flash floods downstream. The floods would be like a Himalayan tsunami, causing great loss of life and, in turn, blocking highways and making it more difficult to rush relief to earthquake-ravaged towns.
1934 to today
The Indian landmass broke away from the ancient proto-continent known as Gondwanaland and, propelled by magma convection deep beneath the Earth’s surface, raced across the Indian Ocean to collide with the Eurasian plate about 65 million years ago. Today, of course, the Subcontinent is still nudging northwards at some 44 millimetre a year – very rapidly by geological standards – bending the twisted rock strata as it goes, and causing it to snap periodically. This is what gives us the great earthquakes of Southasia.
Nepal’s roughly 800 kilometre length sits astride the section of the Himalaya that experiences the greatest build-up of tectonic pressure. This is, after all, related to the fact that the country has seven of the world’s ten highest mountains. The country suffered a mega quake in January 1934, and there are historical records of a big earthquake taking place every 70 to 80 years – which means the next big one is somewhat overdue. In 1934, the Kathmandu Valley’s population was 300,000 and most people lived in mud and brick houses with thatched roofs. The well-to-do had tile roofs. Today, the Valley hosts nearly three million people living in poorly built multi-storey concrete structures.
Furthermore, Western Nepal has not seen a major earthquake for over 300 years. This lull is known as a ‘seismic gap’, and increases the likelihood of a major earthquake in central or western Nepal in the near future. Such a quake would affect the Kumaon and Garhwal region of India, the adjacent Ganga plain, and would devastate towns such as Pokhara, in central Nepal, and Kathmandu. The alluvium of the former lake, which became the Kathmandu Valley floor bed magnifies earthquake waves, and the shaking will cause structures to fail. The most vulnerable are areas on the river floodplains; these are prone to ‘liquefaction’ – when the soil is squeezed like a sponge, and causes even structurally strong high-rises to tilt over.
While flying into Kathmandu, just ten minutes before landing, look out of the right-hand side of the plane. Along the Siwalik foothills is an escarpment ridge that looks as though the entire mountain has tilted. Geologists say this ridge was pushed up by three metres in 1934, lifting it up and northwards along a four kilometre line. Such sudden and dramatic upliftment over the aeons is what caused the Himalaya to rise nearly nine kilometres into the sky, and bestowed Nepal with its stupendous scenery. But that is also what makes the place so deadly.
The hard igneous rock of the Indian landmass that broke loose from Gondwanaland is still pushing into and under the softer Eurasian continent, and there is a tremendous amount of energy stored in the elasticity of the folding rocks. What has changed is that, over the past century, Nepal has become the most densely populated mountain region on Earth. Looking at the devastation in Haiti in 2010, the absence of government and relief, the social anarchy, looting and crime, it is possible to visualise this as Kathmandu’s fate. Like Haiti, Nepal has very little disaster-preparedness; also, Nepal and Haiti are one of the poorest countries in their respective regions, and both have unplanned and haphazard urban growth. The advantage of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, is that even if the airport was destroyed, relief could still come by sea – the country is only 800 kilometres off the coast of Florida. Nepal, on the other hand, is both landlocked and heavily mountainous.
The Kathmandu-based Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) estimates that a 1934-type quake is alarmingly overdue. Were such a quake to occur today, it is estimated that it would kill at least 100,000 people, severely injure twice that number and render 1.5 million people homeless. “A catastrophic earthquake is inevitable. Everyone knows it’s coming, but we suffer here from an inertia,” says NSET’s Amod Dixit. “We are so distracted by today’s crises we can’t think of tomorrow.”
Still, there are islands of success. Kathmandu’s 1994 building code is one of the best in the region – if only it had been followed. Government schools are being retrofitted so they can withstand shaking. Green spaces have been identified and water supplies pre-positioned for survivors and the injured. The government is working on an emergency-response mechanism. Nepali seismic engineers and experts have studied the aftermath of recent quakes in Iran and Pakistan. The main challenge now is to scale up current initiatives, decentralise awareness and response to the community level, and coordinate with international emergency logistics, so the country is prepared for the aftermath. Says Dixit, “We know what to do, we know how to do it. We just need proper policies in place and resources to implement them.”
In 2009, Nepal’s Western donors and the UN got together to form the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC) to help the government tackle future disasters, including earthquakes. It has developed a three-year USD 130 million strategy to look at school and hospital retrofitting, emergency preparedness and response, and community activation. The consortium will also parcel out sectors for donor response. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), for instance, has been tasked with school retrofitting, while the World Health Organisation will be involved in making hospitals safer. The government is also considering a draft bill to set up a Disaster Preparedness Council. And despite turf battles between the Home Ministry, other ministries and security agencies, the seriousness of the future emergency seems to be finally sinking in for Nepali policymakers.
In February 2011, government officials, donor officials and security agencies from Southasian countries, and from the US, Australia, New Zealand and the EU, gathered in Kathmandu to plan an international response to reduce earthquake risk and bolster preparedness in Nepal.
“We know enough to know that there no more excuses not to act,” the UN’s resident coordinator for Nepal, Robert Piper, told the gathering.
“We don’t have time to make the perfect plan – we have to act fast because the problem is much bigger than the UN. It is much bigger than the government of Nepal.”
The UN, which lost several dozen staff members during the Haiti quake, took the lead because it believed Nepal was the next country that would be similarly devastated. The Americans, who co-sponsored the February meeting and also hosted a fundraising meeting in Washington in March, pitched in with logistics and a role for its Pacific Command to lift relief and rescue. According to the then-US ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, “The problem is serious and much hard work lies ahead. But it is possible to make Nepal look more like Christchurch and less like Haiti.”
Both Christchurch, in New Zealand, and Haiti were struck by 7.1 magnitude earthquakes in 2010, but no one was killed in New Zealand while 200,000 died in Haiti. (Unfortunately, New Zealanders were not so lucky when an aftershock struck Christchurch during rush hour on 22 February as a result of which 185 people died).
The mayor of Christchurch, Robert Parker, who also attended the Kathmandu conference, said there was no alternative to having building codes and strictly enforcing them. “That is what saved lives in Christchurch,” he said. “Municipalities and local bodies have an important role to play – the community needs to be empowered to help each other before and after an earthquake.” Richard Sharpe, a New Zealand seismic scientist who helped to design Nepal’s building code in 1992, wondered how many buildings constructed since then actually meet the earthquake-resilience criteria. “I would expect that much of Kathmandu would be flattened if the same level of shaking occurs as in Christchurch,” he warned.
To be better prepared, cities threatened by seismic activity need elected mayors who can be held accountable, and consumer-rights groups concerned about the quality of construction material. Architects and engineers should be more strict with designs, banks should not lend to structures that do not have built-in seismic-resistance features, and hotels could be graded according to the safety of their structures.
What worries earthquake planners the most is a magnitude 8 earthquake during school hours. Current estimates suggest that three-fourths of government schools in the Kathmandu Valley would collapse in such a situation, and most private schools would also be severely damaged. The injured would not be able to make it to hospitals, because only two in Kathmandu are built to survive a major earthquake.
Although things are finally moving on official earthquake response in Nepal, it has been much more difficult to get the government, municipalities and even individuals to act on safer housing. “It is difficult to rescue people from under the rubble, so we should also be trying to make sure they aren’t under the rubble in the first place,” said UN’s Piper. The NRRC has as one of its main priorities the retrofitting of Kathmandu’s most vulnerable schools and hospitals. In 1999, a survey of nearly 400 government schools in the Kathmandu Valley showed that a 1934-type earthquake would kill nearly 30,000 students and teachers outright, and injure another 43,000. By 2011, the number of schools in the valley had doubled, and NSET estimated that the infrastructure of a quarter of them was so poor they needed to be torn down; another 50 percent had to be retrofitted.
The massive casualty in the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, in which 17,000 schoolchildren died when 7000 schools collapsed, only hints at what could take place in Nepal. Hundreds of children also died in unsafe schools in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The NRRC estimates that USD 50 million is needed for the seismic strengthening of the Kathmandu Valley’s government schools and hospitals alone.
On the southern outskirts of Kathmandu, below a building of the NSET designed to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, is a basement that will serve as the nerve centre for relief coordination when the next earthquake strikes Nepal. The Emergency Information Centre has the look of a hotel reception, with clocks on the wall showing New York, Tokyo and London time. A seismograph monitor is in the corner; there are satellite phones and supplies of water, food, diesel stocked to last for months. It is only a question of time before this room becomes one of Nepal’s only links to the outside world.
Kunda Dixit is the Editor of the Nepali Times.