Nepal unprepared for imminent earthquakes
By Naresh Newar
KATHMANDU, Nov 23 2012 (IPS) - Nepal now ranks 11th on a list of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, yet it remains one of the least disaster-prepared nations globally.
Two major earthquakes in the last two years, one on Sep. 18, 2011 and the other on Oct. 5 of this year, have failed to spur the government into action.
Seismologists have warned that another big earthquake is imminent and disaster experts claim that the population of 30 million will grow more vulnerable on a daily basis unless authorities “wake up” to the dangers posed by such catastrophes.
“In our current situation, the consequences of (a) disaster will be out of control and unmanageable. We have to move fast,” Ganesh Kumar Jimee, disaster preparedness manager of the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), told IPS.
Experts are particularly concerned about the 1.5 million residents of Kathmandu city, an earthquake epicenter in which most school buildings, hospitals and government offices are not earthquake resistant.
Over 90 percent of residential buildings, designed by ordinary masons with no input from professional engineers, are considered unsafe.
School buildings suffer from the same problem with an estimated 60 percent of the city’s public schools “bound to collapse”, according to the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC).
The World Health Organisation says that hospitals, too, are highly vulnerable.
According to NSET, over 60 percent of hospitals are at risk of damage in the event of an earthquake measuring anything more than 7.0 on the Richter scale. Most of the country’s 70 blood banks are not earthquake-proof.
In addition, dozens of bridges will also be impacted, thus cutting off crucial supply routes in case of an emergency.
Organisations like NSET and the Nepal Red Cross Society (NCRS) claim that 90 percent of the city’s water pipes will be damaged and 40 percent of electricity lines and electric substations will be destroyed.
Furthermore, Nepal’s many radio stations, which play a vital role in communicating disaster-related bulletins, are unlikely to withstand the impact of an earthquake.
According to IRIN news, these 350 radio stations, 36 of which are located in Kathmandu, are crucial sources of information for the country’s population, 44 percent of which is illiterate and relies on non-print media.
Disregarding all the available data on the urgency of the situation, the government has yet to take serious action on earthquake preparedness.
A lackadaisical attitude towards legislation on preparedness is a major obstacle. A Disaster Management Act has been pending for many years due to political instability in the country.
The Act would help establish a comprehensive Disaster Management Authority that will comprise a professional team of disaster experts, rescue teams, financial resources and equipment.
As of now, the only legitimate body tasked with overseeing disasters like earthquakes consists of a handful of people working in a small disaster unit under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“Hopefully (these steps) will be taken soon and people will take this issue much more seriously from a risk reduction perspective rather than (focusing on) post-disaster activity,” Man Thapa, programme manager of the disaster risk management team for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told IPS.
The UNDP is working with local municipalities and organising trainings for masons on how to construct earthquake-resistant buildings, which could “help save people’s lives”, said Thapa.
Kathmandu at risk
Kathmandu’s dense population of 1.5 million people packed into a metropolitan area of just over 50 square kilometres presents unique challenges.
The number of housing complexes has more than doubled over the last decade, further crowding the already congested city, according to experts.
Earthquakes are nothing new in Nepal, which has witnessed 16 major earthquakes since 1223. One of the most devastating quakes occurred in 1934, killing over 8,500 people in Kathmandu; another, in 1988, caused 721 deaths.
Given the current population explosion and a boom in unsafe, high-rise buildings, the scale of a similar disaster now is unimaginable.
NSET estimates that an earthquake measuring seven or eight on the Richter scale could destroy over 60 percent of the buildings, kill up to 50,000 people, injure 100,000 and render 900,000 homeless.
While awareness about the possibility of a disaster is high, very little is being done to retrofit houses, schools or even hospitals.
“People are still not paying serious attention to the information available,” Pitamber Aryal, disaster management director of the NRCS, told IPS.
When a 6.9 Richter scale earthquake occurred in northeast India on Sep. 18 last year, its impact was also felt in Kathmandu, causing widespread panic.
People began to flee the city in a chaotic manner, paying no attention to the safety tips that had been disseminated online and aired frequently through the city’s many local radios.
Fortunately, the brief earthquake took place at six in the evening, when all the offices and schools had already closed for the day.
“If it occurred during school or office hours, a lot of people would have been injured and killed as a result of the panic,” Jimee told IPS.
“That was a drill exercise for all the Kathmandu residents on how to act during a (disaster)…let’s hope they have learnt something,” he added.