The Next Big One
Bijay Upadhyay pops in and out of courtyards in Nepal’s capital city like a tour guide navigating his way through a museum’s galleries. The relics he’s highlighting on this balmy morning in August 2011, however, aren’t the best Kathmandu Valley has to offer. They’re the most vulnerable.
Deteriorating buildings line the streets, supporting new construction on top that’s stacked two and three stories high. Homes are built so close to one another that residents here call them “handshake” or “kissing” houses. Dozens of leaning structures are buttressed by wooden boards that look ready to snap at any time.
Many residents believe, Upadhyay told FORUM, that because some of these buildings survived Nepal’s last, great earthquake in 1934 — a magnitude 8.1 that killed more than 8,500 people — they can survive anything.
“There are only a few people who remember or who were around during the 1934 earthquake,” said Upadhyay, a Community Based Disaster Risk Management program manager for the National Society of Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET). “And for all others, it’s just a fairy tale.”
The lore moved closer to reality for many Nepalese on September 18, 2011. A magnitude-6.9 temblor struck the northeastern India-Nepal border in India’s Sikkim mountains, about 270 kilometers east of Kathmandu. Authorities counted the death toll at 112 in late September, according to The Times of India newspaper.
The earthquake happened along the same tectonic plates where, millions of years ago, shifting created the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, geologists explained. Nepal itself sits along the Alpine-Himalayan belt, where 17 percent of the world’s major earthquakes take place, according to The Wall Street Journal blog India Real Time.
Statistics such as this, combined with assertions by some seismologists that Nepal should expect a great quake, one registering magnitude 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale, approximately every 75 years, has officials in this landlocked country on high alert. Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs has worked for nearly two years with local and U.S. military officials, as well as local and international nongovernment organizations, to create a national emergency operations center and disaster response plan. Working groups have been meeting to map out ways to deal with internally displaced persons, displaced civilian camps, food and water shortages, communications, access to roadways and security, among many other critical issues that will emerge when disaster strikes.
“We are still in the planning stage, but this process will never end,” Brig. Gen. Ramindra Chhetri, the Nepalese Army’s director of public relations, told FORUM.
Despite the September earthquake, experts recognize Nepal’s geographic location dictates the need to continue planning for the inevitability of a great quake.
“The occurrence of this quake does not lower down the threat from the great earthquake which we expect in the Himalayas,” C.P. Rajendran, a geologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, told The Himalayan Times newspaper just days after the September 2011 quake. “We need to treat each and every earthquake in a special way. ... The fact remains that some historically earthquake-deficient parts of the Himalayas have the potential to generate large earthquakes any time, irrespective of the present earthquake.”
In the last decade, the population in Kathmandu Valley has swelled from about 1 million to roughly 4.5 million people. If an earthquake hit Kathmandu with the same magnitude that one struck Haiti in January 2010, Nepal would experience the loss of about 200,000 lives, and another 200,000 people would be severely injured, NSET officials predict. In addition, 1.5 million people would be rendered homeless, and 60 percent of homes would be destroyed, the U.N.’s IRIN news agency reported.
“At the moment, we are not very sure whether or not this will be repeated,” Rita Dhakal, humanitarian affairs specialist for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN after the September quake. “Regardless, this is a signal for Nepal to be prepared.”
Lessons from Haiti
U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Scott DeLisi described Nepal as “a Haiti sitting on top of a Japan-sized earthquake” at an August 2011 disaster response exercise in Nepal organized by the U.S. Pacific Command’s Center for Excellence for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance located in Hawaii.
“What that means should be apparent if you’ve watched the footage from those other disasters,” DeLisi said. “Does the thought of this city crumbling to dust in a blink of an eye terrify you as it does me? It should, because that is exactly what could happen.”
Many Nepalese officials involved with disaster planning credit DeLisi’s arrival in 2010 and his intense passion for preparing the people of Nepal for survival for the momentum that the country has gained in putting together a disaster response plan.
“Experts tell us that every dollar spent on effective preparedness will save anywhere from [U.S.] $10 to $15 in response costs later,” DeLisi said. “Preparedness and risk reduction make sense if we want to save lives, if we want to preserve societies, and if we want to protect our budgets.”
In Nepal, more than 16 major earthquakes have been recorded since 1223, according to a 2009 disaster report by Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs. Yet many nationals still have never experienced a quake.
“People are not sure whether it is happening or not,” Upadhyay told FORUM. “We have been able to give them the information. Now, we have to motivate them toward being safer.”
That motivation extends to authorities responsible for creating and implementing disaster response plans, as well.
Chhetri, for example, advocates for prepositioning of equipment, such as helicopters, outside Kathmandu Valley to improve rescue and recovery efforts. The Nepalese Army’s helicopter fleet has deteriorated over the years, and most craft are no longer operational due to lack of maintenance as the military’s budget has been cut, Chhetri added. Mi-17 helicopters are the most useful in Nepal, given the country’s terrain and the aircraft’s versatility, Chhetri said. He’d like to see as many Mi-17s as possible brought into Nepal. If that happens, “we will be ready to a certain degree” to respond better to more parts of the country in a disaster, Chhetri said.
“Despite the lack of adequate equipment, we have been able to mobilize our troops instantly to the scene of disaster,” Chhetri said. “There are a lot of organizations that are also fairly prepared to extend cooperation.”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) claims to be the largest humanitarian organization with a local base in Nepal. It has a presence in each of the country’s 75 districts and about 90,000 volunteers, according to Victoria Bannon, IFRC’s country representative in Nepal.
“There’s been quite a lot of progress in bringing attention to the need of better preparedness for every disaster,” Bannon told FORUM.
Getting international humanitarian organizations involved in the planning stage numbers among the ongoing challenges, however, until a disaster actually strikes, she said. “One of the challenges is partly linked to resources.”
Help from within
To offset the challenge of securing outside help before a disaster, officials have actively spread the message for citizens of Nepal to gain life-saving skills, such as CPR, to increase the chance of survival for themselves as well as their neighbors. To that end, retired Lt. Gen. John Goodman, former director of the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, stressed the need for every person in Nepal to be involved in the planning process for a major disaster.
“For the first 24 to 48 hours, your neighborhood is your neighborhood,” Goodman said during opening remarks at the disaster response exercise organized by his group in August 2011. “Governments aren’t there [in the first 48 hours] when the community needs them most. Everybody who is in our community needs to know their role and responsibility [because] most of the people who are going to survive will be saved by their neighbors within the first 48 hours after an earthquake.”
The Nepalese Army has also produced television programs designed to teach life-saving skills to the general public, Lt. Col. Madhukar Singh Karky, who leads the Nepalese Army’s disaster program, told FORUM. The programs will teach locals how to prepare survival kits and create a disaster plan for their family.
“We realize we have gaps and are reaching out to people to fill those gaps,” Karky said.
Enabling outside assistance
Previous earthquakes have proven that when disaster strikes, outside aid will come, said Lt. Col. Anup Jung Thapa, who leads a group of first responders for the Nepalese Army. “The precedence is there for that good will to take hold,” he said. However, the challenges of getting into Nepal due to its geographic location, and the fact that the country has one international airport that is expected to be inoperable, means outside help will be delayed, Thapa said.
“The first seven days is when you will be saving lives,” Thapa told FORUM. “In that initial part, we will be alone, despite everyone’s best wishes. ... Distances and remoteness has made it difficult for foreign forces to become early responders.”
Sabin Pradhan, deputy superintendent of the Nepal Police, said officers have been working with communities and spreading the message of their key role during a disaster.
“There is no doubt that community response is the quickest one,” Pradhan said during a presentation at the disaster response exercise.
Pradhan said police will be among the first responders and will maintain security with other national and international organizations. At any time, there are more than 3,200 police ready to deploy immediately, he said.
“One telephone call to our office activates us and we are mobilized,” Pradhan said.
Becoming earthquake resilient
Kathmandu escaped major damage from the September 2011 earthquake because of its distance from the epicenter, according to The Kathmandu Post newspaper. Had the quake struck closer to the capital city, the outcome would have been drastically different, with structural damage contributing to a large number of casualties, the paper reported.
“It is of utmost importance to identify those buildings that are at high risk and carry out reconstruction or seismic retrofitting,” Sagar Krishna Joshi, national program manager for Nepal’s Earthquake Risk Reduction and Recovery Preparedness Program, told The Kathmandu Post in September 2011.
Others also share Joshi’s priority of making buildings around the city more earthquake resilient.
“My preoccupation is how do we reduce the number of people we have to extract from the rubble,” Robert Piper, head of the U.N.’s humanitarian effort in Nepal, told The Times of India newspaper in a March 2010 article. Piper’s focus has been working with a consortium that includes the U.N., Red Cross, Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to execute a U.S. $130 million project aimed at improving key structures such as schools and hospitals in Nepal to save lives, according to The Times of India.
“It’s not going to save every life,” Piper told the newspaper. “We can’t retrofit every building in the Kathmandu Valley. But if we retrofit all the schools, if we fix the hospitals, if we shift the bridges, if we put water sources where people are going to be evacuated ... we’re going to have an impact.”