Nepal: Clock ticking for earthquake preparedness

News and Press Release
Originally published
KATHMANDU, 24 November 2008 (IRIN) - Kathmandu, one of the most seismically vulnerable cities in the world, is ill-prepared for the next big earthquake, experts warn.

"The situation is quite scary if you put the realities in front of you. We are already too late," said disaster expert Amod Dixit, executive director of the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), a local NGO working to raise earthquake awareness and preparedness.

"We're all deeply concerned about the earthquake risks in the Kathmandu Valley. Unfortunately, the country isn't at all prepared for this calamity," UN Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Representative in Nepal Robert Piper told IRIN.

For organisations like NSET, the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) and the UN, the situation is a source of serious concern.

According to the NRCS's Earthquake Contingency Plan 2008, an earthquake measuring 7-8 on the Richter scale could kill up to 50,000 people, injure 100,000 and destroy 60 percent of buildings, leaving 900,000 homeless.

"The problems of, and requirements for, preparedness are so huge and intimidating that we don't know where to start," said one international expert who requested anonymity.

Big earthquake "inevitable"

Seismic records indicate that earthquakes have hit the Kathmandu area regularly and relatively frequently in recent times.

There were earthquakes in the region in 1810, 1833, and 1866. In 1934 an 8.4 magnitude earthquake killed 8,500 people and destroyed a quarter of all homes and several historical sites, according to NSET and Geo Hazards International, an international non-profit organisation promoting earthquake safety measures around the world.

The two groups have warned that another big earthquake is "inevitable" in the city, which has a population of over two million and over 300,000 buildings.

Over 6,000 houses or buildings go up every year in Kathmandu, many of them built to poor specifications. Aid agencies are calling on the government to enforce adherence to the building regulations introduced in the 1980s.

Government officials say action is being taken on this front: "We now have offices responsible for ensuring building codes are adhered to. They are ready to work with all concerned agencies," said senior official Surya Bhakta Sangachhe, director-general of the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC).

Disaster preparedness strategy

A National Strategy for Disaster Management was developed in 2007 with the support of the UN and other agencies, but has yet to be officially ratified.

It is an important document as it introduces for the first time the notion of risk reduction for natural disasters.

"We desperately need to put together a plan aimed at reducing the valley's vulnerability, and preparing the city for the inevitable," said Piper, explaining that no plan exists that brings together the different local and international actors, giving a clearly defined role for each and identifying priorities.

Agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank have been asking for a clear plan identifying short, medium and long-term elements, so they can see where they can help.

"I have no doubt Nepal's donor partners will respond positively... To date, they have been overwhelmed by huge shopping lists without any sense of priorities," said Piper.