The damages caused by 8.8 Richter earthquake in Chile two days ago versus the damages caused by the 7.0 Richter earthquake in Haiti about two months ago show that it is preparedness that is more important than the magnitude of the earthquake. Because of strict implementation of building codes and better emergency response, the casualty in Chile was far less than in Haiti. These two recent earthquakes should be taken as an eye opener to identify our gaps in earthquake disaster management. Located on the boundary between Indian and Tibetan tectonic plates, the Himalayan Kingdom lies in one of the most seismically active zones. And a quick look of the chronology of major seismic events in the Himalayan Region shows that an earthquake similar or even greater in magnitude as in Haiti is already due.
Unlike other natural disasters like floods and landslides that can be predicted fairly easily, earthquake is probably the most unpredictable one that strikes without any early warning. It is virtually impossible to predict a particular time, day or week that an earthquake will occur. The only option to mitigate the impacts and reduce the loss of lives and property in the unlikely event of an earthquake is to be prepared.
BUT ARE WE PREPARED?
What percentage of our population knows what to do in case of an earthquake? We usually hear people say that they “felt the shake”. But we seldom hear people say that they immediately ducked under a table or a bed. Hence, it is more important to teach people the “do’s and don’ts” in case of an earthquake. This can be started with the students at schools/colleges and office staffs who in turn will go and teach these basic but lifesaving skills to their home-staying immediate family members.
This is when organizations like National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) should be applauded. NSET has not only empowered communities, devised policy and conducted some relevant studies, it has also trained school students on earthquake safety and knocks the conscience of Kathmanduites and the policymakers at least once every year during the National Earthquake Safety Day.
The first step after any disaster is to provide immediate medical attention to the victims. Do we have enough doctors, nurses and other medical staffs to provide services to couple of thousands people at a time during a chaotic situation? The study conducted by NSET reveals that most of our hospitals are understaffed and they do not have sufficient materials and resources. Before we delve into the shortage of resources and materials, it is more important to see if our hospitals and medical institutions are capable of withstanding certain magnitude of earthquake? The study also warns that some of the hospital buildings are in a dilapidated condition that may not be able to withstand the shocks of a medium- to high-magnitude earthquake.
A person living in Kathmandu is about 60 times more likely to be killed by an earthquake than a person living in Tokyo.
Most of the residential buildings, especially the old clustered buildings in Ason, Patan, Bhaktapur, are in dire state and unfortunately it’s the falling objects and buildings – not the earthquake – that kill people. And another reality is that the number of casualties resulting from a disaster in developing country is far more than in a developed country.
According to a 2001 study conducted by GeoHazards International that involved 21 cities around the world, the impacts of the same magnitude earthquake are different in developed and developing countries particularly because of the better construction design, urban planning and emergency response. Developed countries are better equipped to respond to disasters as they have state-of-the art equipment, trained personnel and have necessary resources. The disaster victims get immediate medical attention as a result of which the lethality is less in developed countries. Out of the 21 cities, Kathmandu ranks number one in the per capita earthquake lethality potential.
The study reveals that a person living in Kathmandu is about 60 times more likely to be killed by an earthquake than a person living in Tokyo. If the 1934 earthquake were to occur now, as per the loss-estimation study by NSET, about 60 percent of all buildings in the Kathmandu Valley are likely to experience heavy damage; approximately 90 percent of water pipes; 60 percent of telephone lines and approximately 40 percent of electric lines are likely to be damaged. One thing is to be noted that these studies were done almost a decade ago, Kathmandu has transformed a lot in these years. Significant increase in population and haphazard building construction has exacerbated the situation.
Another potent and overlooked problem is earthquake-induced fire as most of the family use Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders as cooking stove fuel which are often placed outside the kitchen without any latch and without shutting the valve off after its use. The hose, during the shake, can come off easily releasing the highly-flammable compressed gas that can burst into uncontrolled flame with a small spark. The problem can exacerbate as it is common to have multiple families in a single household resulting in multiple cylinders in a single house.
We have to understand that natural disasters are inevitable. Earthquakes are more disastrous because it is virtually impossible to predict them. A successful preparedness plan should include careful identification of the problems, devising appropriate solutions to those problems and effective implementation of the identified solutions.
NTV and private TVs should run public interest infomercials about what to do in case of an earthquake. The commercials should focus more on how to reduce the impact such as by latching the cabinets, cupboards and other big objects to the wall; not storing big and heavy items over the cabinets; latching the gas cylinders to the wall and turning the safety valve off every time after use. It should also encourage people to keep a basic survival kit. Buildings that store chemicals and hazardous materials like shops, storage house and schools/colleges should properly secure the cabinets and the shelves should have lips to prevent the containers from falling.
Schools and colleges should train students on earthquake safety and perform random mock drills so that they don’t panic when it’s actually time to test their survival skills. We need to train emergency responders so that we have people – besides the medical professionals – who know what to do in case of a catastrophe. Many of our youths should voluntarily sign up for this training as it is one of the lifesaving skills that a resident of a seismically-active area should have.
The short-term to intermediate goal should be to retrofit hospitals and strictly implement the building codes in new buildings especially the high-rise residential and commercial buildings in Kathmandu and other growing cities. It should not be misunderstood that rest of Nepal is immune to earthquakes. Earthquake can strike anywhere in Nepal but experts give more emphasis to Kathmandu because of its location, geology and haphazard urban growth and possibly because it is the capital city. The long-term goal should be to encourage home-owners in old and densely-housed areas like Ason to retrofit their house to prepare it to withstand certain level of tremors. Other infrastructure-development goals like retrofitting bridges; improving the conditions of the airport or identifying alternate airstrip can be done as intermediate to long-term goals.
The problem and solution is long known but has always been hindered by political unwillingness. It may be too much to expect from our leadership that blatantly ignores the visible and stinking traffic and garbage problems to come forward to address the problem related to earthquake that nobody can see, feel or anticipate. It is probably ignored because the decision makers think that their houses are built with superior materials and are strong enough to withstand an earthquake.
Even if their houses are earthquake resistant, they are not immune from the lootings and anarchy that follows after a disaster. If the recent lootings of the pilgrims whose bus met with an accident in Chitwan last month is any indication of how people can react in the absence of law and order then the concerned authorities better start consultations with experts and other stakeholders to formulate appropriate plans and policies on earthquake disaster management and effectively implement the ones that are already in place.