Disastrous preparedness

Nine years after the 2015 earthquake is a good time to begin preparing to be prepared for multi-hazards


The 7.2M Taiwan earthquake on 3 April was a reminder for us here in Nepal about the importance of preparation with up to code infrastructure, earthquake early warning sensors hooked to mobile  networks, seismic risk education in schools, and swift emergency response. 

Although 13 people were killed, readiness saved lives. Skyscrapers shook and swayed but did not fall, high-rises tilted but did not collapse. A similar intensity earthquake in Taiwan in 1999 had killed 2,400 people.  

This week marks nine years since Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people. It has been four months since a 6.4M quake struck Jajarkot and West Rukum near midnight on 3 November, claiming 153 lives. 

In the immediate aftermath of 2015, building codes, earthquake-resistant designs and retrofitting became high priority. But as memories fade, so does the fear. Nine years on, buildings including high-rises that flout zoning and building codes have come up in Kathmandu while open spaces have further shrunk

Himalayan seismologists have warned that 2015 was not the Big One, the kind of quake that hits central Nepal every 80 or so years. Neither was Jajarkot the megaquake scientists had expected in western Nepal’s seismic gap. As we have been saying in this paper for the last 24 years, the next big earthquake is ‘not a matter of if, but when’.

While the 14 districts affected by the 2015 disaster have now mostly been rebuilt, and are better prepared, the rest of the country is not. A >8M megaquake in Western Nepal would be a trans-boundary disaster of unthinkable proportions.

In Jajarkot and West Rukum, many survivors spent the winter without a roof over their heads, and they still await relief to rebuild. The National  Reconstruction Authority (NRA) might have taken nine months to set up after the 2015 earthquake, but that disaster should have been a lesson for timely assessment for earthquake relief at the very least.

Nepal is a landmine of disasters. Nearly 350 people have died just in the past year in floods, landslides, lightning, and forest fires, and not including Jajarkot. We are now in the thick of wildfire season. Hundreds of forest fires are burning across the country, some for weeks. Three fire-fighting soldiers and three children picking mushrooms were killed by wind-fanned flames just in the past week. 

The prolonged winter drought should have warned us that this year, the fires would be much worse. But adding fuel to the fires, as it were, is the new trend of burning wheat straw after harvest by farmers. 

Fire is always followed by flood, and this year, weather models predict above-normal monsoon precipitation. As it is, monsoons have become erratic with extreme downpours followed by weeks without rain. Mohan Mainali’s ongoing series in Nepali Times analysing meteorological, hydrological and demographic data from eastern Nepal shows that Nepal has always suffered from either too little or too much water, and this has contributed to outmigration.

Landslides triggered by heavy rainfall along Nepal’s poorly designed roads in never-ending states of construction magnify the risk. Landslides can also frequently block rivers, which raises the need for early warning systems.

And if all this was not bad enough, we have the threat of GLOFs from glacial lakes swollen with ice melted by climate breakdown. The water level in the Tso Rolpa glacial lake in Rolwaling was reduced by 3m in 2002, and the water level of Imja Lake was lowered after the 2015 earthquake to mitigate the risk of GLOFs. But these lakes continue to expand as the Himalaya warms 0.7oC faster than the global average. 

Thulagi glacial lake below Himalchuli is another one in danger of bursting, and would wash away four hydropower projects downstream on the Marsyangdi River. A GLOF from the precariously situated Lake 464 in the Hinku Valley would race down the Dudh Kosi Valley, into the Sun Kosi and right down to the Tarai. 

While these lakes are all dangerous by themselves, they could burst simultaneously during a major earthquake. Which means Nepal must be prepared not just for earthquakes, but the co-seismic risk of catastrophic debris flows along its rivers. 

Disaster preparedness means knowing and acknowledging potential without spreading panic and crying wolf. And: 

  • Stockpiling and pre-positioning food and other relief materials
  • Investing in search and rescue equipment and training
  • Safety drills and earthquake education in schools
  • Decentralised first responders with aerial medevac

Shristi Karki