(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Haiti wake-up call for earthquake preparedness

A busy street in Kathmandu's Thamel area. Kathmandu is the most densely populated city in the whole country and considered at high risk of an earthquake
David Swanson/IRIN

Experts in Nepal have expressed concern over levels of earthquake preparedness after the recent disaster in Haiti.


“I beg Nepal not to wait for that terrifying moment. The more preparations we make now, the more Nepalis will survive and the faster Nepal will recover,” John Galetzka, a field geologist at the California Institute of Technology, told IRIN.


According to experts, the main source of seismic activity in Nepal is the subduction of the Indian plate under the Tibetan plate or Himalayas.


“The more I read about what happened in Haiti, the more concerned I become,” Wendy Cue, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kathmandu, said.


Should an earthquake of similar magnitude or worse strike Nepal, the outcome could be much worse.


“Nepal has and will have another earthquake in the future that is similar in magnitude to the recent Chilean earthquake - magnitude 8.8. This size of earthquake will not just double or triple the size of the magnitude 7.0 Haiti earthquake in terms of energy release, but [be] thousands of times larger,” Galetzka, who has worked extensively in the region as well as in South America, warned.


Over 16 major earthquakes have struck Nepal since 1223, the last occurring in 1998, according to the January 2010 Nepal Disaster Report prepared by the government of Nepal and the Disaster Preparedness Network-Nepal (DPNET).


In 1934, an 8.3 magnitude quake killed over 8,500 people in Kathmandu Valley.


“Today, an earthquake of such magnitude could be catastrophic,” Amod Dixit, an expert on earthquake preparedness and director of the National Society for Expert Technology (NSET), a major local civic group involved in earthquake disaster education and seismic risk reduction projects, said.


Damage scenario


According to a 2002 damage scenario by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) with Nepal ’s Ministry of Home Affairs, a 7.5 magnitude quake in Kathmandu would result in at least 40,000 deaths and almost 100,000 injuries.


Dozens of bridges linking the city could be knocked out, while much of the city’s health infrastructure would be destroyed.


''The Haiti disaster has increased significant awareness in Nepal on earthquakes and we hope that it will scale up action so that we won’t have a potential Haiti here''

About 95 percent of water pipes could be damaged, and 40 percent of electricity lines and all electric substations destroyed.


But the scenario was based on an estimated population of 1.5 million. Government estimates suggest the population has nearly doubled since then.


According to NSET and GeoHazards International (GHI), a US-based NGO which has conducted several surveys and research on earthquake risks in the country, a magnitude 7.5 or 8.0 quake today would kill more than 100,000 people, leave 500,000 injured and make 1.5 million homeless.


Airport risk


If Tribhuwan International, the country’s only international airport, were badly damaged, a quake-affected Kathmandu could well be cut off from immediate international assistance.


Experts from the UN, international agencies, NGOs and the government are particularly worried about this, as it could make any response in this largely mountainous, landlocked nation slow, if not almost impossible. While Haiti’s Port-au-Prince has an active port, most assistance to Nepal would need to be brought in by air.


Disaster Management Act


“The Haiti disaster has increased significant awareness in Nepal on earthquakes and we hope that it will scale up action so that we won’t have a potential Haiti here,” OCHA’s Cue said.


“Haiti ’s tragedy has given us a wake-up call to act now,” Home Ministry official Thir Bahadur GC said.


The government is speeding up approval of the Disaster Management Act, which will for the first time address preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery strategies at national level, and will soon replace the weak 1992 policy that was focused primarily on post-disaster response, he said.


“We will soon be strictly enforcing building codes and advancing our preparedness programmes as we are under immense pressure from all sides - especially after Haiti’s earthquake,” he added.


Several ministries - including roads, local development, health, education, physical planning and law - are also now joining hands with the Home Ministry to work on earthquake preparedness for the first time.


“Things are moving much faster than before,” Thir Bahadur GC said.



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