EARTHQUAKE DAY : Urgency Must

Nepal has developed some capability to cope with disasters like earthquake. However, the level of preparedness is still inadequate to face any major earthquake

Jan. 20, 2013, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 06 No. -15 Jan 25- 2013 (Magh 12, 2069)

Despite Nepal’s two decades of experiments in preparing for quakes, last year’s earthquake in the eastern region exposed Nepal’s weaknesses in disaster management capabilities.  Even after more than a year, the government is yet to reach out to all the people affected by the quake and rebuild the school buildings, health posts and other infrastructure it damaged. 

Nepal started building its disaster preparedness capabilities less than two decades ago. When executive director Amod Mani Dixit of the National Society for Earthquake Technology- Nepal (NSET) launched the programs to generate awareness regarding the implications of the earthquake, only a few people knew that there was the need to develop early preparedness capabilities to cope with the quake.

After two decades, Amod’s continued efforts have changed the mindset of the people and the policymakers. Despite the continuation of haphazard building constructions, the people are sensitized about the earthquake safety. The introduction of building code has increased the resistance capability of the houses in Kathmandu.

Despite all these developments, Nepal is still a highly risky area.  The Kathmandu valley and other parts of the cities will face a devastating situation in case of any major earthquake like that of 1934. As Nepal is celebrating the earthquake day, remembering the great earthquake of 1934, there is still a gap of knowledge to fill.

With support from the various development partners, the Ministry of Education is now launching programs to make the public schools earth quake resistant. The schools are doing the drill annually to raise the awareness and sensitize the school children about earthquakes.

Since the first recorded earthquake of 1260 AD, Nepal has already faced a number of devastating earthquakes in every 100 years. Nepal had faced a major earthquake, over 8 Richter scale, in1934. Nepal has seen several smaller earthquakes, including the one of September 29, 2011. One major earthquake, over 8 Richter scale, is said to be waiting. 

“Nepal is very vulnerable to a major earthquake, it is just a matter of time," said Dr. Soma Nath Sapkota, chief of National Seismological Centre in Kathmandu.

The first recorded earthquake in history of Nepal took place on June 7, 1255 AD. One third of the total population of Kathmandu were killed including Abahya Malla, the King of Kathmandu valley. Numerous buildings and temples of the valley were entirely destroyed while many of them were severely damaged. The magnitude of the earthquake is said to be around 7.7 in Richter scale.

The earthquake of 1934 AD (January- February), known as the Great Nepal-Bihar Earthquake, struck Nepal and its surrounding areas around 2 pm on 16th of January. The magnitude of the earthquake was 8.4 on the Richter scale. Its casualty figures were the highest for any recorded earthquake in the history of Nepal. In total, 8,519 people lost their lives in Nepal. A total of 126,355 houses were severely damaged and around 80,893 buildings were completely destroyed.

As Nepal lies in the active earthquake zone, tremors, small and big, are a normal phenomenon. National Seismological Centre records more than 400 hundred tremors a year over 3 Richter scale. 

"If Kathmandu is impacted with a shaking of an intensity IX on the Mercalli intensity scale, the aftermath is going to be much worse than in Haiti," said Dixit.

Unlike the Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of an earthquake at its epicenter, the Mercalli scale measures the intensity of shaking in specific locations - basically by measuring the destruction of buildings and natural structures.

Dixit has every reason to be worried. The climax of the collision between tectonic plates that thrust up the Himalayas in Nepal is criss-crossed by geologic fault lines - some of which have been building up pressure for centuries. Even if it happens 300 km away, an earthquake that measures 6 or 7 in magnitude on the Richter scale at its epicenter could generate level VIII, IX or even X level shaking on the Mercalli scale in Kathmandu.

Geologists believe that a major quake in Kathmandu is overdue for more shaking than the IX level disaster that flattened Haiti. The next "big one" could be much worse in the Kathmandu Valley, a bowl that will trap and amplify the wave of energy.

At a time when the population of the Kathmandu valley has more doubled from about 1.5 million people to more than 4 million, the casualties will definitely be higher. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Planning, each year, between 10,000 and 20,000 new buildings mushroom, most of them constructed with little more than a wink and a nod to the building code, with higher floors built off the books, concrete watered down to save on material, structural columns eliminated and emergency exits ignored. 

"The density of the population is higher in Kathmandu, so the lethal impact of the earthquake will be much higher," said Dixit. "Our estimate (of 10 years ago) of 40,000 dead and 100,000 people injured and requiring hospitalization could easily be doubled - or make it two-and-a-half times or three times."

Nepal is a landlocked country, with high peaks of the Himalayas separating it from neighbors, like India and China, which could aid in relief efforts. The only lifeline for supplies and rescue teams for Kathmandu will likely be the small, single-runway airport . And there are no guarantees that its air traffic control system, or its water, electricity and fuel supply will survive the first wave of tremors.

"There is no emergency response plan for the airport ," said Dixit. "There's a plan for emergency landings , but I've not seen or heard any earthquake emergency contingency plan for airport operation."

Although Nepal has been observing January 16 each year as earthquake safety day, it is yet to able to inject the feeling in the minds of policymakers and common people about the importance or early preparedness to minimize the damage.

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