The Nepal earthquake - It was never if, but always when would the big one happen

The Indian tetronic plate moves at some 23 mm. each year under the Euroasian plate. It produces the world’s most dramatic and beautiful mountain landscapes, but it also leads to a tension in the ground that has to be released at some point. Saturday’s earthquake mid-way between Kathmandu and Pokhara was that point. The last major earthquake close to Kathmandu was in 1934. On that occasion 8,500 out of a Kathmandu valley population of 200,000 died. Between Pokhara and Kathmandu a hundred years at 23 mm. gives the tremendous pressure of more than two metres ‘adjustment’ waiting to happen. Even now, some experts are wondering whether the past three days’ earthquakes have been enough to relieve that pressure.

Kathmandu became a disaster waiting to happen

Earthquakes do not kill, buildings do. This is what we were always told in Kathmandu. The past 15 years have seen a rapid growth of the city in a disorganized and largely uncontrolled manner. The population in Kathmandu valley has increased to around 3 million; house construction has been poorly planned, poorly constructed and city planning for services absent or ineffective. Water for the majority is delivered by road tankers; electricity is in short supply with ‘loadshedding’ (planned electricity cuts) of up to 16 hours a day when the few reservoirs are empty; fuel, as with virtually all the cities’ inhabitants needs, arrives in the city in lorries that take the winding Prithvi highway from India; there is one international airport with one vulnerable runway, only five weeks earlier an international passenger lost its front landing wheel and could not be moved, closing the airport for 4 days. In addition, much of the valley is a former lake and the soil is likely to liquefy when shaken by a violent earthquake. Quite simply, the Kathmandu and the surrounding towns in the valley are extremely vulnerable to disaster.

Poor governance and lack of resources

The leaderships of the national political parties have been more concerned with political maneuvering to secure power for themselves than seeking to use government for development and not least for disaster preparedness. It seemed that for many in government such a disaster would happen sometime in the future, when others would be responsible, they did not see a need to spend time on it now. Failure of effective governance at the national level has been mirrored by the same in the Kathmandu municipality. The elected councils in municipalities, districts and villages were dismissed in 2002 and no local elections have taken place since. Bureaucrats have lacked that important element of political accountability and local government has suffered considerably as a result. Land use planning, enforcement of building codes and regulations, maintaining clear means of access, investing in the infrastructure necessary for a city of several million people has been weak and disorganized. For example, in 2012 there were 12 fire engines, mainly very old and several not functioning at all; at the same time Kathmandu’s roads in many localities are too narrow for these to enter, let alone for cranes or bull dozers in the case of a disaster such as now.

The same combination of opportunism and fatalism has prevailed at the household level with landowners constructing houses that maximize every centimeter of the plot of land owned and often more, encroaching on pavements and roads while bureaucrats are paid to turn a blind eye. Similarly building regulations and quality control of construction materials is often forgotten in pursuit of cost cutting; additional floors are added without permission or assessment of the loadbearing capacities of lower floors. If government is failing its people, property owners have also excelled at exploiting the weakness of government.

The death toll will rise

The epicenter of the earthquake was some 80 km west of Kathmandu. Villages in the districts of Ghorka and Lamjung and nearby areas have been totally destroyed. Access is difficult as landslides have blocked roads. The government lacks an effective information system on its population so the reporting of missing and wounded will take days if not weeks as officials are not present and survivors in these worst affected communities face their own struggles to survive and cope with the situation. Not only will the number of dead rise, the suffering of the injured will be considerable in the absence of an effective health system.

Is there a positive side?

Fortunately the earthquake happened on a Saturday when offices and most importantly schools are closed and it was at midday and not at night, so more people were outside or better able to avoid collapsing buildings. The international airport has not been seriously damaged and is open to relief flights and the earthquake, though severe, did not cause the many new high-rise buildings to collapse. In fact it has been the poor that have been disproportionately affected as they tend to occupy the older brick and wood constructions that have been worst affected. There is also a tremendous resource in the Nepali people themselves with their proven capacity to work in and for their own communities in the face of poverty, adversity and now disaster.

Finally, not only has a broad group of aid agencies, development agencies and NGOs begun to mobilise support and emergency assistance, the very considerable Nepali diaspora that sends remittances estimated to make up some 23 per cent of the country’s GDP, will be a source of invaluable support to many of the poorer communities from which these workers come from. One can only hope that the political leaders of Nepal similarly rise to the occasion and set their differences and political ambitions aside for the good of the country and its peoples.