Shaking things up

The Jajarkot earthquake could be a dress rehearsal for an even bigger disaster in the near future.


The deadly midnight earthquake last Friday in Karnali Province occurred in an area where seismologists had long predicted the next Big One.

This was the ‘seismic gap’ that this newspaper first wrote about in its 9-15 January 2004 edition commemorating National Earthquake Safety Day and the 70th anniversary of the 8.5 magnitude 1934 disaster.

The subduction of the Indian plate into and below the Eurasian landmass leads to accumulated stress in the rock strata deep beneath the Himalaya. This tectonic tension builds up over time, and if it is not released periodically the result could be a megaquake that could result in a rupture leading to 6m or more of horizontal surface displacement.

Read Also: Deadly earthquake hits W Nepal, Nepali Times

Seismic experts now say that the 3 November event was not the massive one that was expected. At 6.4 it was a moderate quake with a shallow epicenter, which is why the destruction was limited to a relatively small radius although the shaking was felt as far away as Delhi and Kathmandu.

The disaster also exposed Nepal’s demographic shift. Of the 157 confirmed dead so far, many were women because most men have migrated abroad for work. There was also a class and caste element, as the flimsiest homes belonged to the poorest families.

Disaster management experts like to say that it is not earthquakes that kill people but buildings. Indeed, quakes are not ‘natural disasters’ but mostly man made. Proof of this was the 25 April 2105 earthquake which killed nearly 9,000 people in central Nepal as substandard buildings collapsed.

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Tragically, this also was proven in last week’s disaster when fragile stone and mud plaster homes collapsed with the very first jolt. Newer buildings with reinforced concrete columns withstood the shaking, but had the intensity and duration of the quake been longer they would have also crumbled.

Seismologists say the Jajarkot quake was not strong enough to release all the tectonic stress -- which could mean it was either a precursor to a bigger one to come, or it has made the region safe for another decade or so.

There is no way to predict it either way. What we know for sure is that the next one is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. It is better to invest now in preparedness than in counting bodies and the number of collapsed buildings after a disaster.

Read also: Mass cremations for Nepal quake victims, Sagar Budhathoki and Gopen Rai

For this, we already have lessons from the 2015 earthquake. Nearly 7,500 school buildings with 35,000 classrooms collapsed eight years ago and even if we make a conservative estimate of only 10 students per class, the loss of young lives would have been catastrophic. What saved them was that the quake happened on a Saturday.

In Jajarkot and Rukum West last week, many families were crushed by their falling homes while they slept. But given the number of schools that have collapsed, the casualty rate may have been higher if the quake had happened in the daytime on a weekday.

The first order of business for prevention would therefore be to retrofit school buildings all over Nepal, but especially in Gandaki, Karnali and Far Western Provinces. Earthquake safety instruction and drills should also be mandatory in schools. Digging tools, tents, first aid kits and go bags must be pre-positioned in school premises which can serve as shelters. Hospitals and public buildings also need to be retrofitted, and private home owners encouraged to make safety inspections.

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There are now earthquake early alert systems available that give up to 30 second warnings by analysing earthquake P waves waves and estimating its location and intensity to send alerts either through alarm devices installed in schools, or now on Android phones.

In fact, in the last 5.7 magnitude earthquake on 3 October in Bajhang, many people with Android phones got alerts in Kathmandu even while the earthquake was happening 500km away. Personal phones therefore became seismometers and could even give prior warning of quakes if Nepal becomes part of the US Geological Survey’s ShakeAlert system. The awkwardly acronymed NDRRMA (National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority) was given a back seat in the aftermath of the Jajarkot quake. Its chief was travelling, and the government put in place a ‘one window’ coordination unit in Karnali that, instead of facilitating a more efficient mechanism for relief delivery, has become a bottleneck.

The 3 November disaster was a dress rehearsal for a bigger catastrophe to come, and sadly, we did not come off with flying colours this time.

Read also: Demographics of disaster in Nepal quake, Nepali Times