5-11 June 2015 #761

Post-mortem of a disaster

The earthquake was not unexpected, but it could have been far worse. It was a rehearsal for the really big ones to come.

There are two things we can now say about the deadly earthquake that struck Central Nepal on 25 April leading to tragic loss of life and property: a) It was not a surprise, and b) It could have been far worse. Himalayan seismologists agree that the quakes did not sufficiently release seismic energy beneath us, and that this earthquake should spur us to be better prepared for the really big ones to come.

Kunda Dixit

Relief work is going on, supplies haven’t reached many remote settlements and hospitals are still having to cope with the backlog of wounded. So, it may still be a bit premature to analyse the response to the disaster by the state, the international community, non-governmental groups and individuals to this disaster. Even so, some lessons could also have a bearing on ongoing relief and help streamline it before the rains arrive mid-month.

For about 10 years before the earthquake, scientists and international agencies had been warning the Nepal government to step up preparedness, set up a Disaster Management Authority, start retrofitting schools and hospitals. Alarm bells were ringing about just how unprepared we were to a disaster that everyone knew was coming. During the 1996-2006 conflict, Nepalis had to deal with the day-to-day disaster of war, and earthquakes were not a priority. Since 2006, the constitution, peace process and power games have preoccupied politicians and the media, leaving them too distracted to plan for a future quake.

Even so, the awareness campaign was starting to have an effect. Funds were being pledged, exercises held, contingency plans drawn up, communities had started stockpiling emergency equipment and pre-positioning supplies. We were preparing to be prepared when the earthquake struck on 25 April.

There were many factors that kept the death toll far lower than expected. First of all, at M7.8 this wasn’t a ‘Big One’ and it didn’t strike at night when most people would have been home. The intensity and duration of shaking was just below the threshold for ferro-cement failure, so brick and clay mortar buildings went down and only badly-built concrete structures collapsed. Also, the dry season and over-extraction of groundwater had lowered Kathmandu’s water table which meant that the Valley’s soft soil did not suffer liquefaction.

Striking just before noon on a Saturday saved at least 75,000 lives – of children who would have been in the 5,500 schools that were completely destroyed. Many of their parents were in the fields, digging potatoes, harvesting wheat or weeding the cornfields. A quarter of the men in the 15 districts have migrated out, which also lowered the death toll.

Kathmandu itself was spared the worst-case scenario for a projected M8.5. Telecommunications could have gone down, but didn’t. The airport should have been knocked out, but reopened in a few hours. Highways linking Kathmandu to the plains were not blocked, bridges did not go down.

Electricity was restored to most of the capital in a few days. Retrofitted schools in the Valley and the outskirts all survived. Hospital buildings did not collapse, and triage training drills had prepared medical staff, and the system worked. Journalists who had attended disaster management workshops reported responsibly. The state media performed exceptionally well in keeping the flow of accurate information, and community FM stations went back on air almost immediately after the first shock, transmitting from improvised outdoor studios.

Experts we spoke to while researching this piece, however, said there are many things that could have been done better during the ‘Golden Hour’ when more lives could have been saved. The first few days saw slow government response, confusion and lack of coordination. The National Emergency Operation Centre should have been activated immediately with participation of top political leaders, security agencies, scientists as well as the United Nations Resident Coordinator. Customs was a disaster, operating with obdurate business-as-usual red tape when relief material needed urgent delivery.

This group could have taken snap decisions on assessment, deployment of search and rescue, relief and coordinating incoming assistance. As it turned out, the politicians vanished, and the Nepal Army stepped in to play the coordinating role. The other lesson is to immediately expand and train the Armed Police and Nepal Army’s Collapse Structure Search and Rescue teams and equip them properly, so they can respond even faster to save more lives, and be more cost-effective than international rescuers.

The April quake and aftershocks in May only partially released the energy stored under Kathmandu, and the rupture fizzled out south of the Valley. There is still a potential for another quake in Central Nepal, and then there is the ominous ‘seismic gap’ in western Nepal that hasn’t seen a mega-quake in 800 years. Both will be even more disastrous than what we have just been through, with the city’s reinforced concrete structures not able to withstand the shaking.

What we have seen was just a warning to be better prepared, a rehearsal for even bigger quakes to come.

Read also:

Radio active after the quake, Sonia Awale

Not-so-big one

Shaking things up, Editorial

Preparing to be prepared, Kunda Dixit

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