Turkey and Nepal face similar seismic risks

Nepal must prepare itself for overdue mega earthquake with retrofitting and better building codes

Rescue personnel in front of a building destroyed by the 7.8M earthquake in Turkey on 6 February. Photo: TURKISH MINISTRY OF INTERIOR/TWITTER

The deadly 7.8M earthquake in Türkiye and Syria on 6 February occurred on the East Anatolia fault that had not suffered a major earthquake since 1138. There is a similar seismic gap in western Nepal where there has not been a mega quake since 1505.

The area around Aleppo in northern Syria and southern Türkiye has also seen smaller earthquakes, including a 7.0M disaster in 1822. So far, an estimated 25,000 people have been killed with survivors camped out in the open in blizzard conditions.

At 7.8M, the Türkiye-Syria earthquake was about the same magnitude as one that hit Nepal in 2015, but it lasted two minutes — more than double the duration of the Nepal quake.

Preliminary reports suggest a surface displacement of 3m, whereas in Central Nepal seven years ago it was about 1.2m. The devastation in southern Türkiye and Syria is therefore much worse, with many concrete high-rise apartment blocks coming down at 4:15am when families were still sleeping, leading to a great loss of life.

Even though the 2015 earthquake in Central Nepal was not a mega earthquake, it still killed 8,857 people and made millions homeless. Most of the buildings that collapsed in Kathmandu were brick mortar structures, while some multi-storey concrete buildings also came down in areas like Gonga Bu.

The 1934 earthquake was 8.0M epicentred in eastern Nepal, and killed at least 16,000 people in Nepal and India. Historical records show that such mega quakes hit Nepal once every 100 years, while smaller ones like the 2015 quake are more frequent.

The large seismic gap in western Nepal between Pokhara and Dadeldhura means so much stress has built up there because of the convergence of the Indian and Eurasian plates that an earthquake of more than 8 magnitude could happen any day.

A mega quake in western Nepal will impact the whole country, including northern India. This is a level of disaster the whole country needs to be prepared for, not just western Nepal. And to prepare for what we know is coming, we must waste no time in reinforcing infrastructure, since two-thirds of the all buildings in Nepal are not seismic resistant.

After 2015, there is a general misconception that concrete buildings are safer because many of them survived the quake. But most reinforced concrete structures in Kathmandu would not have survived if the intensity then was slightly higher and the shaking had lasted as long as this week’s earthquake in Türkiye-Syria.

Given how disaster-prone we know Nepal is, we must seriously put our efforts and money into reducing the risks. This means design earthquake resistant structures, and monitor building compliance.

Awareness alone does not save lives, people need to change their attitude and practice. Many of us have already forgotten the destruction of the 2015 earthquake, and people have gone back to building unsafe houses as they used to.

Individuals must invest a bit more to ensure that their buildings are safe, while the government can provide technical expertise. This means retrofitting especially public buildings like schools and hospitals, but this should not cost more than one-third of what a new building would.

Retrofitting can be a lifesaver. None of the schools in Central Nepal retrofitted by our organisation NSET suffered damage in 2015, and many served as shelters for the general public for months during the aftershocks.

Nepal received immediate help from the international community in search and rescue (SAR) operations in 2015. There were 141 teams from 34 countries with 4,521 personnel that could fly in because Kathmandu airport was not damaged.

A search and rescue team from Türkiye was one of the first to arrive on 26 April 2015 with 82 rescue members, 2 canines and stayed for two weeks. Türkiye's search-and-rescue response in Nepal under the its Prime Minister’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, known as AFAD. It also sent 16 tons of supplies including tents, food, water and supplies for children.

Several other Turkish agencies including the Humanitarian Aid Foundation, Turkish Red Crescent, Search and Rescue Foundation and Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions had sent emergency and medical supplies, doctors and search and rescue experts.

Nepal needs to reciprocate Türkiye’s generous and prompt assistance seven years ago, and show solidarity during this tragedy. Nepal has also been able to build back better within 5-6 years and can share some of its experience.

By the time Nepal’s teams are mobilised in a few days, search and rescue operation may be already of less relevance. However, medical teams with expertise in orthopaedics, trauma care and essential medical supplies will be useful since responders have themselves been caught up in the disaster.

Nepal Red Cross has a strong system and experience in local response and volunteer mobilisation, and can go with essential humanitarian supplies like shelter and non-food items.

In the medium term, Nepal’s experience in rural housing reconstruction can help during the recovery and reconstruction. Organisations like NSET and others have amassed experience in helping recovery, reconstruction in other earthquakes in Gujarat, Bam, Banda Aceh, Kashmir and Nepal itself.

We can offer human resource support in dealing with the planning and implementation of housing reconstruction. Technical assistance to transfer Nepal’s experiences, lessons and good practices for both urban and rural reconstruction will be of much help. Additionally, Nepal can pledge support for recovery and reconstruction.

Surya Narayan Shrestha is the Executive Director of the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET).