AMOD MANI DIXIT, general secretary and executive director of Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), has been working in the risk reduction sector for over last two and a half decades. Dixit led the Nepal's expert team in the eastern region's 1998 earthquake and this scribe also went with him up to the epicenter in Udayapur district. Dixit has been actively involved in earthquake preparedness and risk reduction since then. A lot of water has flowed in the Kosi river since that earthquake. Nepal has already coped with a couple more earthquakes, including the one of September 2012. As Nepal is celebrating the Earthquake Safety Day on January 16, marking 82 years of Nepal-Bihar Great Earthquake, Dixit spoke to KESHAB POUDEL at NSET's office in Bhainsepati on various issues related to earthquakes. Excerpt:
What do you suggest for making it safe when there is a major quake?
Drop, cover, and hold is the only effective way to protect yourself against an earthquake. In earthquakes and disasters, it is the individual who is going to suffer and face the consequences. The first direct impact of the earthquake is on the individual. Thus, there is the need to focus on making the life of individuals secure. The suggestion about making mandatory building code and others are directed towards the future. However, the immediate focus should be on individuals.
What is the focus in an earthquake?
The focus of any risk reduction needs to reduce the individual casualty or rescue individuals. How to save individuals is important. Earthquakes come and go. The quakes cannot grab you and kill you if as an individual, you follow adequate safety measures. That will give less chances for casualty. Individuals will be killed and injured only after something hits them.
How can individuals survive?
If you want to survive in an earthquake, you must learn how not to die. We need to know how people normally die or get injured in an earthquake. After the earthquake of September 2011, we had dispatched various teams in earthquake affected areas of eastern Nepal, including Indian state of Sikkim, to conduct a study on how people died and got injured during the earthquake. It helped establish the cause of death and injury during the earthquake. Our team studied the epidemiology of earthquake to know the exact reason of the death.
What are the main causes of death in earthquake?
After studying the nature of casualty and death in eastern Nepal as well as in Sikkim, we are confident to say that our method of drop, cover, and hold is the best way to save the people during quakes. Since centuries, we have been following the method. Our recent studies have also proven that this is the best available way for individual protection during the quake. We need to make our body's dimension smaller. If someone holds a particular place, he or she can easily avert being hit from the object. We are asking individuals to go beneath the door, table or something when the place is rocked by an earthquake. If you don't have anything to drop, put pillows or books or hands on your head during the cover. This will drastically reduce casualty. When you drop, you need to cover your head by some objects. This idea comes from west and we have followed it. Since we have not done any study or research about the safety measures, this has generated confusion.
But there are questions over the present methods of safety. How do you look at this?
Some raised questions on the current safety methods, of drop, cover and hold, saying that this method is not made for a country like Nepal, but it is more effectively applicable in the developed countries where taller buildings exist. Doug Coup, a fire fighter, claimed that upon his experience in looking at various earthquake zones, including Gujarat, Indonesia, China and other places, triangle of life is more effective than the drop, cover and hold method. He has been creating noise in developing countries where earthquake have hit. Even in Nepal someone questioned our experiments accusing us for promoting traditional unsafe methods. They too pursued “Triangle Method." Even some Nepalese scientists, some international organisations, are also lobbying for Triangle method, saying the other method is not the right way.
Now, how safe is Kathmandu?
I can undoubtedly say that Kathmandu is unsafe and it is prone to a major earthquake. However, we can make Kathmandu safe by increasing safety measures. Although Nepal has taken certain steps, Kathmandu is yet to be safe. In the 1998 earthquake scenario, we found that over 60 percent of the houses in Kathmandu Valley would be destroyed if the valley had been hit by the earthquake of a magnitude of 1934’s Nepal Bihar Great Earthquake. Even after taking certain measures, the level of risk has not gone down as over 50 percent of houses will be still destroyed.
What have you achieved then over the years?
We have achieved certain success in changing the construction style to make houses sage. We retrofit some school buildings, houses and hospitals. Only 7 percent of the houses are built under the supervision of engineers and remaining 93 percent are still constructed with the advice of petty contractors and foremen. We have trained only 5,000 masons. However, only half of them are actively involved in construction. Of course, we have made certain progress but it is not enough to claim that we have drastically changed the overall scenario. Kathmandu still is unsafe to cope with a major earthquake.
How do you visualize the scenario?
We estimate that over 100,000 people will be killed and 300,000 will be seriously injured in case of a major earthquake here. The risk scenario has not changed much compared to 15 years ago. I myself asked the question then about what we have been doing for the last one and a half decade. What I can say is that we were unable to reduce the risk drastically but I can claim that we have not done anything to increase the risk.
It is true that we are unable to contain the risk factors. What I have realized is that when we promote the idea of risk, our aim should be not to increase the risk. One cannot reduce the risk in a day or so. It needs a long time or at least twenty years. We need to focus our efforts to reduce the risk in twenty years. We have to teach the people a way to survive. For this, we need to work to make more safe houses and the building code should be implemented strictly in the construction of new buildings. The houses which were built without taking building codes into account, should be strengthened through retrofitting. We are encouraging people to go for retrofit to make their houses safe. We need to have earthquake preparedness programs. We need to mobilize police and army in rescue. We have been taking several efforts to reduce the risk. We have been teaching women at the community level on the risk reduction measures. Of course, the risks will be there in our houses, but we can reduce them through appropriate steps.
We can reduce the risks. The buildings like ours constructed through the mud is little riskier than the big concrete buildings. Our studies have shown that only 15 percent people will die in the building collapse. Our efforts should be now to reduce the rate of casualty. We can reduce it to 10 percent. After spending almost two and a half decades, I am confident to say that we are able to increase the awareness level. From urban to remote parts of Nepal, everyone speaks about the risk reduction. This is a major achievement. People talk: drop, cover, and hold.
You have been saying for a long time that there will be an earthquake. When will it hit?
I cannot say the exact day and time but our calculation is that enough energy has already accumulated to have a major quake like that of 1934 in this part of the region. According to scientists, the Indian plate is pushing our plate beneath the Tibetan plateau annually by 2.5 centimeters. In one hundred years, it will be 2.5 meters. In two hundred years, it will be five meters and it is 7.5 meters in 300 years. Scientifically, it has already been proved that there is already a big hole beneath the earth capable to rock this region massively.
How do you say that there will be quake?
There was no major earthquake in east of Kangda and west of Kathmandu in the last three hundred years. A major earthquake occurred in this part of tectonic plates five hundred years ago. In every hundred years, there is a vacuum of 2.5 meters early. Just 3 meters’ gap will cause a great earth quake. Whether there is a big hole or not, we are likely to see a great earthquake any time soon. Nobody can predict but the time has come we care. The accumulation of energy can burst out any time.
It is certain that there will be great earthquake in any time any day. It is already overdue. If we look at the history of earthquakes, it has been recorded since the period of Avaya Malla. Over 750 years, Kathmandu faced 10 earthquakes like that of 1934 great earthquakes. In every 75 years, an earthquake rocks Kathmandu valley badly.
Despite your warnings and efforts, little has changed. How do you look at this? Numbers of houses continue to increase and constructions are violating building codes?
Some efforts have been made from all sides, including the government. Yes, we can still to do a lot of work before making our country safe from earthquakes. We have disseminated the knowledge at all levels. But, it rarely works. As long as we don’t internalize the knowledge, it does not have any result. As long as risk perception does not go to the inner heart of the people, nothing will work. Earthquake is dangerous but people forget it. Our body never permits to talk about earthquake.
How do you see the priority of the government in disaster risk reduction?
Our government’s priority is in health, education, communication and poverty. However, disasters have rarely got the priority. Disaster management is taken as part of health and it is under the Home Ministry. In our national economy, we rarely think about including disaster risk. Our perception is whether to give priority to earthquake or development? We have never thought earthquakes is part of development process. There is a feeling that investing money in disaster preparedness is regarded as a waste. We are arguing that there is a need to give equal priority to disaster and development.
Are you satisfied with present success?
We are unable to do as per our capacity. We failed to create a conducive environment. Since building code was implemented 15 years ago, only a few municipalities have executed it. There are enough flaws in its implementation, just look the buildings around Bashantapur and New Road, although there is a restriction to construct the houses over 5 stories.
As you have somewhere a millionaire will be pauper in an hour due to quake, then why are people ignoring your warning?
When you build your house and industry properly, following the building code, it does not matter if your workers live in poor localities. We have good example from Gujarat where industries survived but they could not run because of lack of buildings. Kobe has also been a good example of how local industries collapsed and if they are to sustain. After 1995 quake, there has been a lot of investment in infrastructure. However, due to the collapse of local construction industry, construction companies from other parts are getting benefits. Local companies are unable to make any money. If there is a quake without any preparedness, Nepal’s industrialists and investors will lose competiveness and opportunities. There is a need to have contingency programs. There is a need to have contingency plans for industry.
I don’t know how safe infrastructures, including towers constructed by NCELL, Nepal Telecom, UTL and Nepal Electricity, are to make these function smoothly. They might have contingency plans. I can say that safety is not adequate. We can see a lot of towers built at the top of the houses in Kathmandu. When 60 percent houses are reportedly vulnerable to quake, you cannot say how these towers will survive. What is the status of the towers? I can say over 60 percent of houses will be destroyed but I cannot say how stable the towers will be. This prediction is based on the government report or Ministry of Urban Development.
You were also part of restoration of school buildings in 1998 earthquake. What have you learnt from it?
We constructed a number of schools. Outline of the buildings are strong. However, the walls have collapsed. The decision was half good. There is the need to go with the government side by side in the period of reconstruction. The government needs to provide all technical support along with cash. There is also the need to send knowledge along with other support. Along with cash and knowledge, law should be taken and management. Just sending management is meaningless. This is also a major lesson Nepal has to learn.
What do you suggest for future?
Only sending money cannot help. We can make buildings but not safety. Money, knowledge and law enforcement must go together. The government provides relief materials and knowledge but people are still living in cracked houses in eastern parts of Nepal. A lot of work has been done but there is still lack of law. Now Ministry of Home is regarded as nodal body to relief, rescue and rehabilitation. Home Ministry alone cannot do it.
How do you see your experiences in the last two decade?
Twenty years ago, we lacked knowledge. Now Nepalese are capable enough to handle all quakes and disasters. Nepalese can save people. There is no rule in the country. There are Ministry of Home and Department of Mine. Department of Mine can do scientific research and Home Ministry can handle the rescue well. They cannot save people. There is the need to internalise the disaster and decentralize the disaster by districts, people, schools and students. One of the major challenges now is the indifference in various bodies.
One of the positive thing is that political parties are now taking disaster as agenda. It is good to see that political parties at least put disaster in their election manifesto. We talked this issue with all political parties. Disaster needs to be considered as a factor in the political process.