EARTHQUKE Insecure Cities

In the middle of the celebrations around the Earthquake Safety Day, research articles published by scientists have created doubts in the minds of the general people. As Nepal lies in a seismically active zone, the occurrence of earthquake of any size

Jan. 7, 2017, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.10, No.10, January 06,2017 Poush 22,2073

By just roaming around, one gets to see the rampant reconstruction and new construction taking place in the earthquake affected areas of the Kathmandu Valley.

Although the National Reconstruction Authority and Municipalities have prescribed the building structures in the areas, no one seems to be actually abiding by the rule. The structures being erected or consolidated without enough technical supervision and inspection may have made Kathmandu more insecure than it was during the Gorkha Earthquake and its aftershocks.

With no elected represented at the local bodies and political instability at the center, construction of earthquake resilient buildings is nobody’s real concern. People are taking advantage of the weak regulatory authority. The temporary engineers mobilized by the National Reconstruction Authority are not available in the municipalities of Kathmandu. Looking at the fate of Kathmandu, one can easily guess the status of reconstruction work in the remote areas.

Masons and other workers are in short supply for much of the reconstruction work that seems to be going on. Untrained masons, therefore, are commonly seen in the reconstruction sites, making the fate of the structures uncertain for impending earthquakes. In the absence of technicians and engineers, untrained masons and petty contractors are ruling the reconstruction roost.

Without any geological mapping, some people are building their new houses in place of the ones they demolished. Experts warn of the possible catastrophe in case of the next big earthquake, which may be looming in this seismically active zone.

“NRA is serious about the ongoing situation. There is the need to stop the rampant construction of houses. The Local Development Ministry needs to take a serious consideration of the situation,” said Sushil Gyawali, executive director of NRA, at a press meet organized to highlight one year of the authority's establishment.

Regularization of Irregular Structure

As scientists are warning of severe earthquakes, municipalities in Kathmandu have announced a package to regularize the irregular structures. Kathmandu Metropolitan City has already issued a public notice asking city dwellers to apply to regularize their homes constructed irregularly or constructed by violating the building codes.

With no effective monitoring and inspection, the 42 apartments, most of which were declared unsafe and given red stickers following the last earthquakes, are or were doing the maintenance work for the damaged portions on their own.

Many houses damaged by the earthquake in Kathmandu valley are erected on wooden support and while many other house and apartment owners have started reconstruction and maintenance on their own.

Many see a fault in the announcement that has not been able to check the anomalies. But Municipal authorities see something else there. “Only through the regularization process, we can record how many buildings are constructed irregularly. This will help develop a database,” said spokesperson of Kathmandu Metropolitan Corporation.

Prediction of Big Earthquake

As unsafe construction and reconstruction activities continue to take place, scientists have hinted at the possibility of another major earthquake any time soon. Although the earthquakes cannot be predicted with precision, given Nepal’s geographical location, nothing can be ruled out.

“I would be surprised had the scientists ruled out possibilities of an earthquake. Since Nepal lies in the seismically active zone and our mountains, Himalayas, valleys were made by the earthquakes, they are part of our life. I rather see a greater threat in the rampant reconstruction and insecure and unsafe buildings being erected around us,” said Dr. Ranjan Kumar Dahal, a scientist. (See interview).

In a recent research conducted around the original points of major rivers at Tribeni and Bagmati, experts found the traces of possible major earthquake. In Tribeni, roughly 124 miles (200 km) south of Kathmandu, scientists discovered a scarp – a steep bank – of at least 15 feet (5m) vertical separation between 1221 and 1262 AD. And at the Bagmati site, they found a vertical separation of about 30 feet (10m) or more, formed between 1031 and 1321 AD.

The findings indicate the 124-mile stretch of the fault could be in the stages leading up to a massive earthquake of magnitude 8 or greater, capable of producing fractures 15-30 feet high.

Although people believe that the last earthquake has reduced the risk, researchers say the 2015 Nepal earthquake 'did not diminish' seismic hazards. They warn that the fault could be in, or approaching, the stage leading up to a large quake.

Publishing in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the researchers revealed evidence of earthquake displacement dating back thousands of years.

Professor Steve Wesnousky of the College of Science examined layers of rock and soil in a trench in Tribeni, a small town in central Nepal, to study the frequency of large earthquakes on the Himalayan Frontal Fault.

Geophysics professor and director of the Center for Neotectonic Studies Wesnousky of the University of Nevada, Reno, has been studying the Himalayan Frontal Fault for 20 years.

"We conducted a number of pale earthquake studies in the vicinity of Kathmandu in the past year, digging trenches and studying soils and fault lines looking back over the past 2,000 years," Wesnousky said to London based Daily Mail. "Coupled with the historical record, it's apparent the faults are capable of earthquakes far greater than the Gorkha earthquake."

“The 2015 Gorkha earthquake produced displacement on the lower half of a shallow decollement that extends 100 km south, and upward from beneath the High Himalaya and Kathmandu to where it breaks the surface to form the trace of the Himalayan Frontal Thrust (HFT), leaving unruptured the shallowest 50 km of the decollement,” said Wesnousky.

According to the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, the Tribeni site could be approaching, or already in, the later stages of strain accumulation before a large earthquake.

Wesnousky's research team includes Deepak Chamlagain, a professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Yashurhiro Kumahara a professor at Hiroshima University in Japan, Ian Pierce of the Center for Neotectonics Studies and the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, Alina Karki of Tribhuvan University and Dipendra Gautam of the Centre for Disaster and Climate Change Studies in Kathmandu.

Although scientists are warning of the possible earthquakes, Nepal’s current level of preparedness is too little. Even the government is yet to bring a new act on Disaster and Relief to accommodate all stakeholders. 

As the reconstruction is rampant and there is no mapping of vulnerable areas, with the government unprepared for earthquake hazards, there will be more devastation and destruction in case of another major earthquake in Nepal.

At a time when scientists have issued the warnings, Nepal Army is the only institution preparing for the event of such major disaster. Although their role is again limited, they are working closely with other security agencies, Armed Police, Nepal Police and other civil society organizations, bracing for any eventuality.

Of course, Nepal Army’s drilling and preparedness will help Nepal during the time of rescue. However, there is the need to have a strong sense of government preparedness at all levels.

As in the past, ministers, high government officials, development partners and civil society members will preach for secure and safe Kathmandu in celebrating the Earthquake Safety Day. However, haphazard construction and government apathy to major disasters, like earthquakes, may have turned Kathmandu and other big cities in Nepal into death traps.  

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