Be prepared

Earthquake Safety Day 2004 coverage. Photo: NEPALI TIMES #178

Nepal’s National Earthquake Safety Day commemorates 15 January 1934, the day when a magnitude 8.3 quake epicentred in Okhaldhunga, killed at least 17,000 people. It is known as the ‘Bihar Earthquake’ because Nepal was closed to the outside world then, and the British had more information on the damage and casualties in northern India.

That sunny winter afternoon, temples and homes in Kathmandu crumbled in clouds of brown dust. Geysers of water shot out of fields, as the soil was squeezed like a sponge. In the royal palace, two of King Tribhuvan’s daughters were killed. Of Kathmandu Valley’s total population of 200,000, more than eight thousand died that day. Survivors, now in their 90s, have traumatic childhood memories of death, destruction and fear.

Today, Kathmandu’s population is 3 million. Buildings are densely-packed and most are multi-storey concrete structures. Kathmandu ranks #1 on the list of Top Ten cities in the world most vulnerable to a catastrophic earthquake. 

Past disasters foretold, Om Astha Rai

The magnitude 7.8 and 7.3 quakes in 2015 were warnings for Nepal to be prepared. Nearly 9,000 people were killed in 14 districts in and around Kathmandu, but the casualties could have been much higher if the intensity was a little higher, and the shaking had lasted a few seconds more. 

And, as our report this week on school reconstruction shows, the number of children who would have been killed had the quake not struck on Saturday at noon, is so high as to be unthinkable. That danger is not over. Seismic resistant classrooms and school retrofitting is one of the most urgent investments that Nepal can make.

Earthquake Safety Day 2011 coverage. Photo: NEPALI TIMES #536

The good news, as we report, is that most schools that were damaged in 2015 have been built back stronger. The attention of school administrators should now be on Covid-19 safety when classes resume, as well as upgrading the curriculum. 

But we also need to move beyond central Nepal that was impacted by the 2015 quakes to make classrooms safer in other parts of the country. This is most urgent in western Nepal, which Himalayan seismologists say, has not seen a mega quake for nearly 700 years, and one is long overdue.

Quake was a learning experience for Nepal’s schools, Prakriti Kandel

Earthquake Safety Day 2013 coverage. Photo: NEPALI TIMES #638

 To be sure, a 8.5 magnitude earthquake epicentred in western Nepal will be a regional catastrophe, affecting the densely-populated north Indian plains, and scientists say its impact on Kathmandu could actually be worse than the 2015 disaster. 

The most important lesson we must learn on National Earthquake Safety Day from the 40 seconds of shaking at 11:56am on 26 April 2015 is that we have to be better prepared — strengthening existing schools, hospitals and public buildings, enforce a building code on new ones, follow zoning laws, pre-position digging equipment and supplies, conduct drills for search, rescue, and relief. This is not panic-mongering, it is a question of life or death.

Not out of danger yet,  Sonia Awale

Nepali Times editorial on Earthquake Safety Day, three months before the 2015 earthquake. Photo: NEPALI TIMES #740

 Every Earthquake Safety Day over the past two decades, this newspaper has carried the same message: let’s be prepared. Ironically, an editorial three months before the 2015 earthquake struck was titled ‘Preparing to be prepared’.  

The message bears repeating: the next big earthquake in Nepal is not a question of if, but when.

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Mind the gap, Editorial

Disastrous management in Nepal, Sewa Bhattarai