|Art: Sworup Nhasiju|
Of the countries in the Subcontinent, only Sri Lanka and the Maldives are not classified as being at high-risk from catastrophic earthquakes. The rest have swords constantly hanging over their heads. Although the reason is tectonic, the high risk actually stems from government apathy, short-term political horizons and a fatalistic culture that blames earthquakes on divine curse. Actually, earthquakes do not kill people – badly built buildings do. And by not enforcing building codes, and by 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. Although the geophysical forces that lead to the rupture of the Earth’s crust are indeed natural, most deaths are caused by the collapse of sub-standard manmade structures. A magnitude 8 earthquake along the Indus-Ganga plain would be magnified by the shaking alluvium, and would 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 would cause serious destruction and loss of life. The prospect of a major earthquake is therefore like 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 earthquake risk and 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 cause these lakes to burst their banks, 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 mm 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 km 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 its last 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 brick houses with thatch roofs and the well-to-do with tile roofs. Today, the Valley hosts three million people living in poorly built multi-storey concrete structures.
Furthermore, the area west of Kathmandu 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 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 10 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 km line. Such sudden and dramatic upliftment over the aeons is what caused the Himalaya to rise nearly nine km 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 last year, the absence of government and relief, the social anarchy, looting and crime, it is not difficult to visualise Kathmandu’s fate. Like Haiti, Nepal has almost no disaster-preparedness plan; also, Nepal and Haiti are 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 km 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 of rest,’ 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 gained experience in 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 capacity, 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.’
Two years ago, 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, 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, government officials, donor officials and the security agencies of Southasian countries and those in 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, is taking the lead because it believes Nepal is the next country that is going to be similarly devastated. The Americans, who co-sponsored the February meeting and are also hosting a fundraising meeting in Washington in March, are pitching in with logistics and a role for its Pacific Command to lift relief and rescue. Says the 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 in the quake that struck Christchurch during rush hour on 22 February; as Himal goes to press, 75 fatalities were confirmed, with 300 people still missing.)
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 says. ‘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, wonders 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 warns.
To be better prepared, cities threatened by seismic activity need elected mayors who are accountable, and consumer-rights groups concerned about the quality of construction material. Architects and engineers should be stricter 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. Say the UN’s Piper: ‘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.’ The NRRC has as one of its main priorities the retrofitting of Kathmandu’s most vulnerable schools and hospitals. Twelve years ago, 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. Since that study, the number of schools in the valley has doubled, and NSET estimates that the infrastructure of a quarter of them is so poor they need to be torn down; another 50 percent have 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 Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (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.
- Magnitude 8.3 earthquake hits on a winter evening with brisk westerly wind. Eighty percent of Kathmandu’s buildings collapse at a time when most people are home preparing dinner. Gas cylinders explode and kitchen fires spread. Fanned by the wind, the city is engulfed in a firestorm. There is no escape because the valley has almost no open spaces left today; almost as many people die of burns as are crushed by falling buildings.
- Severe earthquake at 1 am, when most people are at home sleeping.Maximum casualties take place from crushed buildings, while people rushing out to the streets are buried by falling cantilever balconies. There are no lights, no excavating equipment; streets are blocked by debris, and most hospitals are damaged. Daylight brings out the full horror of the complete devastation. When people are unable to find food, medical care or help to rescue trapped relatives, there is looting and riots. The police are nowhere to be seen.
- Magnitude 8 quake strikes at 11 am on a monsoon morning after days of heavy rain. Kathmandu’s topsoil liquefies (as happened in Mexico City in 1985), and most buildings collapse and the ruins ‘float’ on ground that has turned to the consistency of paste. The heaviest tolls are in collapsed government buildings, offices and schools. The sole airport runway develops cracks and is unserviceable, even as landslides wipe out all highways in and out of Kathmandu. International relief is dropped by parachute, but arrives only after three days.
--Kunda Dixit is publisher of the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
From our archive:
Subel Bhandari looks at the Strategic Partnership Agreement, noting its avoidance of contentious issues. (April 2012)
Vijay Prashad reviews Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, discussing Taliban strategy in the context of NATO withdrawal. (October 2011)
Aunohita Mojumdar explores questions of accountability in relation to the West’s “hasty exit strategy”. (February 2011)