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Preparing to be prepared

Sunday, January 11th, 2015
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Kathmandu most vulnerable to earthquakes

Heavily built-up Kathmandu is on top of the list of cities around the world most vulnerable to earthquakes. Pic: Kunda Dixit

National Earthquake Safety Day on 15 January is a reminder to be ready for the coming Big One

When (not if) the next big earthquake strikes Nepal, don’t ask what the government can do for you, ask what your community can do for itself.

Endless political gridlock and dead-end development has distracted government attention from preparing for a long overdue mega-earthquake in Kathmandu, a city experts say is the most vulnerable in the world to seismic risk. A bill to set up a Disaster Risk Management Commission is stuck in parliament, and a turf war between line ministries has left contingency plans in limbo.

“Our best option is to decentralise risk management to the household, village or municipality level,” said Surya Narayan Shrestha, an engineer with the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET) which is working with town and village councils in enforcing building codes and training staff to ensure compliance.

The last big earthquake to hit Kathmandu was 8.3 magnitude and struck at 2.30PM on 15 January 1934 killing 8,000 people in the Valley and another 10,000 in the rest of Nepal and India.

Experts predict that an earthquake of similar intensity today would destroy 60 per cent of the buildings in the city, and kill at least 100,000 people outright. Hospitals left standing will be understaffed and overwhelmed with the wounded. Relief will be affected by crippled airports and highways.

Frustrated that the draft Disaster Risk Management Act does not pay sufficient attention to preparedness, and has not been ratified by parliament even after five years, activists and donors are in a dilemma – try to rework it or lobby to finally pass a faulty bill? The Home Ministry is preoccupied with post-disaster response after earthquakes and floods, but risk management is about being ready and should be under the purview of the new commission and coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Interactive map of earthquakes in Nepal since 1255. Click on the circles for more information.

Despite the slow movement on legislation, experts say Nepal is regarded as a role model in the region for its innovative approach in its School Earthquake Safety Program in which the Department of Education works with a consortium of donors to conduct drills and retrofit vulnerable schools. A similar program to strengthen six Kathmandu Valley hospitals to withstand earthquakes and equip them to deal with mass casualties is also in the works.

“The idea is not just to make schools safe but the whole school system,” Shrestha explained, “not just retrofit hospitals but make the hospital system prepared for disasters.”

NSET is working with municipalities and village councils to include compliance to building codes in their minimum performance criteria, encourage self-regulation by architects and contractors to promote seismic resistant designs, and train masons to reinforce self-built homes.

“We have to be prepared to be prepared,” said NSET’s founder Amod Mani Dixit, “earthquakes don’t just kill people they kill countries. We don’t have to wait for the constitution or elections to be ready.” Since it will take time for the government to act, NSET is trying to scale up its activities and involve institutions in disaster preparedness.

Learning from earthquakes elsewhere in the world, a damage assessment of Kathmandu Valley has also been drawn up with maps of open spaces with prepositioned water supply and emergency equipment. All that needs to be done is to put those plans into action.

“To know what an earthquake is like you have to live through one,” says 89-year-old Bhuyu Maharjan of Patan, who was six years old in 1934. “We thought it was the end of the world.” He described the ground moving like waves, deep cracks in the fields. The Taleju Temple in Mangal Bazar collapsed, and 22 people were killed inside the Honacha eatery nearby.

Honacha destroyed in 1934 earthquake

AS FRAGILE AS EGGS:The Honacha eatery in Patan was reconstructed on the same spot where it was destroyed by the 1934 earthquake, killing 22 people. Pic: Kenji Kwok

Eighty years later, eyewitnesses to the Great Earthquake of 1934 (read testimonies, below) describe the terror of trying to flee collapsing buildings, the pall of dust over the city, living in tents in the cold with very little food for weeks.

Shyam Maharjan’s father had gone to the Bagmati River for a bath when the quake struck. He remembers water gushing out of cracks on the ground, and suddenly the river flooded as if it was the monsoon. He had to swim across to get back home. “For many years later, my father was always scared even when there were minor tremors,” Maharjan said.

Man Maya Shakya, 70, remembers her mother telling her of “walking on the roofs of collapsed houses” because the streets were blocked with rubble. Her uncle had been buried in one of the houses, and had to be dug out. There were so many corpses they were piled high and brought to the streets to be cremated.

If that was what it was like when the Valley’s population was only 200,000 and houses were mostly brick and timber, the next Big One in a built-up city of 2.5 million would do much more damage.

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“There was so much dust it became dark” as told to Sonia Awale

(Click on photo thumbnail of Bhuyu Maharjan, Indra Nath Aryal and Chirmai Awale for video)

Bhuyu Maharjan, 89

I was playing marbles with one of my friends right there (points across the square). My aunts were washing clothes at that well. Half the house fell on top of the well, and we narrowly escaped. There was dust everywhere, it covered the sun and it suddenly went dark. Everyone came running to the lachhi (square) because it was the only open space, and it was crowded with families. My grandfather’s leg was trapped under one of the fallen buildings. Another man’s leg was crushed by a wooden pillar, and he was yelling for help so they cut the pillar to free his leg. One of my relatives was at a funeral for his dead father when the quake struck. He had just enough time to rush out, but the priest was buried under the building by the river and his body remained there for 16 days until it started to stink.

I was six, and we lived in tents for more than a month surviving on bits of food. Most houses in our neighbourhood were destroyed, my house was damaged and two weeks after the earthquake it collapsed completely. My grandfather borrowed Rs 50 from the government to rebuild our house, he didn’t take more because he was afraid he couldn’t pay it back.

Purna Lal Awale, 91

I was only seven but was working at the brick kiln in Koteswor helping make roof tiles. Everything started shaking, and I ran out. I could see a great cloud of brown dust rising over the city, many houses were buried in Thapathali. I wasn’t afraid, but I was worried about my family in Patan. I ran all the way home praying “Narayan, Narayan.” I passed many buildings that had collapsed. Along the river, there was water and sand gushing out of the ground. Surprisingly, our house was intact. A neighbour had been looking out of the window when the quake struck, and the building collapsed around him. He miraculously survived. We stayed in a tent, but I don’t remember how long. There were many aftershocks.

Indra Nath Aryal, 94

I was ten years old and was travelling to the haat bazar in Jitpur near Birganj. We were just starting to cross this small bridge over a river when everything started swaying. I grabbed the plank just so I wouldn’t fall, if I had been halfway across I would have fallen into the river. I held on to it for two minutes until the shaking stopped. Water and sand was shooting up from the river like fountains. I went back home, but our house was badly damaged.

We pitched tents in the fields and lived there. We borrowed Rs 1,000 to rebuild our house, but later Juddha Sumshere cancelled all our debts. My father’s aunt had back injuries and broke her leg when her house collapsed.

Kamal Mani Dixit, 85

I was four-and-half and still remember it was a school holiday, so all of us children were in the house in Gairidhara. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was playing with my cousin, Kalyan, on the second floor balcony. Suddenly, we heard our aunt shouting at us to get down, and it took us some time to go down the staircase. We had a narrow escape. Ten seconds after we got out of the house a part of it came crashing down.

We lived in tents for weeks after, ten members of a family in one tent. For some reason, I remember a flower growing on the ruins of a collapsed house. I would sit outside the tent and look at the stars. Someone asked me what I was doing, I said I was counting the stars. I still remember him telling me: “There are 900,000, you don’t need to count them. Now go to sleep.”

Chirmai Awale, 95

I was 12, and we were playing near the Ganesh Mandir that afternoon with children from the neighbourhood. Suddenly, everyone started shouting “Hah, hah.” I thought they were trying to scare away the crows, but it was to warn people to get out of their houses. Some of us started crying for our mothers. One shopkeeper narrowly escaped his collapsing house when he rushed out to help us. There was dust everywhere, it was like a fog, we couldn’t see anything at all. The houses on our street had collapsed, some were leaning on each other. Our parents finally located us, and they cried and prayed with joy. I can’t imagine what would have happened if our parents had died. After the earthquake, we couldn’t even find our house everything had collapsed. We lived in tents for months, there was no food because the food stored in our house was buried. Despite all this my pre-arranged marriage went ahead four days after the earthquake. I have seen a lot, suffered a lot. Every time there is a tremor, I get very scared.

How frequent?

It is generally accepted that a major earthquake hits Kathmandu every 80 years. This is based on historical records of earthquakes. However, seismologists say the real frequency of mega-quakes of magnitude 8.0 and above happen about every 500 years.

Before 1934, the last big 8.0M quake was the one in 1255 that shook Kathmandu and killed the king. Since then, there has been no big earthquake in western Nepal, and tectonic strain is building up along the Main Frontal Thrust fault line that traverses the Himalayan foothills. The next Big One is due any day, but between Gorkha and Dehradun in India.

“That doesn’t mean Kathmandu will be spared,” warned Som Nath Sapkota of the National Seismological Centre, “you don’t need an 8 magnitude to destroy Kathmandu, even 7 is enough.”

Sapkota has studied the 8.3 magnitude 1934 earthquake, placing the epicentre not in Bihar as originally thought, but in Sankhuwasabha, and found evidence of a massive rupture zone between Bardibas and Dharan where the terrain has moved 5m.

Watch the NatGeo animation: 70 million years in 2 minutes

The Himalaya was formed by the Indian plate ploughing under the Eurasian landmass 70 million years ago, and this process continues with the India still moving northwards at 2cm a year. According to the elastic rebound theory, an 8 magnitude quake makes the rock layers snap and slip 6m at a time, and Sapkota says it takes about 500 years for enough tension to build up for that to happen.

“The trouble in Nepal is that there is not enough research and too much panic,” Sapkota said.

Kathmandu is prone to severe shaking even during minor quakes because the city is built on clay and sediment of a previous lake, and is also prone to liquefaction.

Quake mascot

The Himalayan red panda has been enlisted as the mascot for awareness about disaster preparedness in Nepal. A cartoon publis service announcement was launched last year. The National Earthquake Safety Day was first marked in 1999 to commemorate the devastating 8.3 earthquake of 15 January, 1934. The PSA has been broadcast on local tv channels, and was made in cooperation with the US Embassy in Kathmandu. The wise panda gives advice to children on what they should do in the classroom if an earthquake strikes. It also advises families to leave their interior doors slightly ajar at all times to prevent them from jamming shut during an earthquake.

Produced by Ayesha Shakya 

Read also:

Unnatural disaster, Editorial

70 years after, Naresh Newar

Thinking the unthinkable

Shudder to think, Editorial

1934

Making schools safer, Bhrikuti Rai

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2 Responses to “Preparing to be prepared”

  1. Shree Shrestha on Says:

    Reading this article on Earthquake Safety made me real hungry.


  2. rajesh p on Says:

    Talking of vulnerable schools, it is unfortunate that even institutions like Kasthamandap School, run by relatively “educated” people, which needs immediate retrofitting, has been delaying and begging for funds for years, while the promoters get richer… I pray that the Department of Education will take immediate action and close down these so called “schools” until they are safe for our children !


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