VOL. 04, NO. 23, May 27, 2011 (Jestha 13, 2068)
Experts warn a major earthquake might hit Kathmandu any moment, yet preparedness to minimise the risk is far too slow
By NITISH BHATTARAI and ELIEN VAN HEE
If a major earthquake, let’s say, measuring 8 on the Richter scale, occurs in the Valley, the scale of damage and death will be unimaginable. According to experts, the casualty figures will be more than half a million. Due to massive damage in the infrastructure, rescue and rehabilitation will be much more difficult.
Despite such dire warnings from experts, haphazard construction is yet to slow down in the valley. The number of multi-storied buildings constructed without following any standard poses a major risk during the period of earthquake like disasters.
Nepal is in a high risk of being struck by an earthquake of 8 Richter scale in magnitude. The rapid population growth, haphazard building constructions and unresponsive political situation are likely to give this expected disaster even worse outcomes. Despite efforts to improve the knowledge and communication between all the involved organizations, there is still a long way to go in terms of preparedness even as the clock is ticking.
The last earthquake with a magnitude around 8 in Nepal (and Bihar) was in 1934. It took a toll of over 8500 lives. Research has shown that earthquakes of that force occur with an average of every eighty years. So the next one, luckily already a few years late, will bring more catastrophes.
It is a common phenomenon for less developed countries to have the presence of a lot of aid organizations. National and international, governmental and non-governmental, there is a big offer in the development sector of Nepal.
They all try to make a difference, but their goals are so spread out, that the general status of the country stays the same.
It was obvious that there was a need for collaboration. In 1996, Disaster Preparedness Network (DP-Net) was created as a loose association of several organizations whose working areas are linked with disaster management.
“We are a consortium, funded by NATO and currently we have 24 partners,” explains Lubha Raj Neupane, program coordinator of DP-Net. “The two keywords of the consortium are ‘information’ and ‘communication’. Scientific information can make Nepal stronger against disasters like floods, drought, landslides en the most outspoken ones: earthquakes. The findings can, with the help of the partners, be distributed to the people of Nepal, so the outcome of the earthquake would be better than expected today.”
But what can be expected? That is still a wild guess. Scientific information that is available is quickly dated because of the strong population growth.
It is calculated that in Kathmandu Valley 40 000 people will be killed and 90 000 will be injured by an earthquake with a magnitude around 8, that is with the assumption of a population of one and a half million. But current predictions speak of a population of four million people in the Valley.
One of the partners of DP-Net is National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET). They want to improve the knowledge and awareness to reduce the impact of future earthquakes. Their goal is to have ‘Earthquake Safe Communities in Nepal by 2020’. But again the same thing, even this specialized organization is not able to give up-to-date information.
Although there are reports, for example, about vulnerability assessment of hospitals and schools. But no one seems to know what other impacts would be, if earthquake actually hit. And knowledge is of course the first step to make proper preparations. The need for a push from the highest political ranks is bigger than ever.
Nepal has experienced huge earthquakes a few times. Still people forget the implications linked to an earthquake. People don’t have awareness in many areas. That is why building constructions are not up to the standards. The government has introduced building codes, but enforcement is a big problem. However, many buildings which were already built before were not up to those standards.
The general people tend to evade the standard rules to save money. The improper practices are done by unregistered contractors who are not bound by the law to follow the standard rules and regulations. The main problem is that these contractors solely depend on their own experiences. They are not technically educated for the building profession. Unfortunately these kinds of contractors are mostly used by the middle class families, the dominant population in the valley.
The other common problem is that the people do not consult the engineers and even if they do consult the engineers, they do not follow the engineers just to save a little money. Hence, the buildings, especially in the valley, are vulnerable to earthquake damage.
And that is where it gets difficult. Due to the current political problems, there are many other priorities such as security and constitution.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs makes efforts, but the amounts of resources are still not adequate,” Pitambar Aryal, the director of the Disaster Management Department of the Nepal Red Cross Society, said.
“My opinion is that the armed police force, the army and the police need to be equipped so that they can do the heavy rescue when earthquake hits, before the international assistance arrives.”
Besides the availability of the materials, Aryal also mentions the lack of awareness. “Nepal has experienced this kind of earthquakes a few times. Still people forget the implications linked to an earthquake.”
Because of the rapid population growth, schools and hospitals are bursting from the ground. The speed is the extra factor why buildings are still not being built to the earthquake-standards. Aryal adds: “Basically, earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.”
But the communication between all the different parties is slowly improving. “Very recently there has been a high level of sensitization among the stakeholders and we have regular meetings,” says Aryal, “especially in Kathmandu Valley”. The Valley is very vulnerable because the area used to be a lake. The consequence is that the ground has a lot of soft sediments, which will turn in to liquid during the shaking of an earthquake. This process is called liquefaction and that will harm the bad support structures of buildings even more.
The government has the Nepal Risk Reductions Consortium where last year the Prime Minister and the minister of Home Affairs were involved, with all kinds of stakeholders. Home Affairs has also set up a new Act about the situation, because the last one was from 1982. But the case is set on a hold at the Ministry of Law and Justice.
“Because of the political situation at the moment, the Act does not get reviewed, because an institution is of course more important”, explains Aryal. “So there is some kind of commitment, but bringing commitment to action requires resources. And that is what Nepal is lacking. Of course we can’t prevent the disaster, but we must be able to better prepare us.”
Nepal’s development partners have been also supporting Nepal’s efforts to enhance the preparedness level. Under the leading position of United Nations Development Program (UN), Nepal’s development partners and International non-governmental organizations have been supporting and conducting programs.