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Densely-populated Kathmandu facing increased earthquake risk

Kathmandu's residents and buildings at high risk from earthquake.
(Naresh Newar/IRIN)

Despite being located in one of the world's most seismically active zones, Kathmandu's earthquake preparedness is low and the lives of tens of thousands of residents are at risk, according to local experts.

"The next earthquake will be very disastrous if we fail to improve our preparedness," said expert Amod Dixit from the Nepal National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET).

NSET is a local civic group which has been playing a key role in lobbying at both national and international level to promote awareness of earthquake risk and implement seismic risk reduction projects in Nepal.

Kathmandu is among 21 cities around the world in seismic zones and the risk for the city is increasing every year, say experts. This is mainly due to declining construction practices, uncontrolled urban development and a rapidly increasing population, which is now nearly two million people.

Kathmandu's urban growth rate is nearly 6.5 percent every year, with one of the highest densities in the world. Nearly 6,000 concrete houses are built every year, and mostly without proper engineering and seismic force considerations, according to NSET.

''The next earthquake will be very disastrous if we fail to improve our preparedness.''

Awareness programme "essential"

"A massive awareness programme has become essential to convert Nepal into a totally earthquake-safe community by 2020," said Ramesh Guragain, an engineer involved in building earthquake-resistant buildings.

Although some awareness raising work is under way, due to cooperation between various Nepalese agencies working on earthquake safety, more needs to be done, he said.

Nepal is no stranger to earthquakes and major ones have occurred several times in the last few hundred years in Kathmandu, as evident from historical records.

According to the government's Earthquake Division at the Department of Mines and Geology, the last big earthquake took place in 1934 when nearly 17,000 people died in a minute. The government reported that the quake's magnitude was eight degrees on the Richter scale.

The earthquake destroyed nearly one quarter of all homes and many historic temples.

If an earthquake of that magnitude were to happen within a decade, it would cause significantly greater human casualties, physical damage and economic loss than past earthquakes, according to NSET's Kathmandu Valley Earthquake Risk Management Project.

''Kathmandu needs to speed up the process of managing earthquake risk to ensure its survival and protect its residents.''

Potential humanitarian disaster

Experts are worried that such an earthquake could create a severe humanitarian crisis - especially in a poor country like Nepal, where there are still not enough hospitals, doctors and food resources, and where the infrastructure and water supply situation is not up to coping with the consequences of a large-scale disaster.

According to NSET, inadequate preparedness could result in the deaths of nearly 40,000 people in the capital, leave over 900,000 homeless and destroy 60 percent of the infrastructure.

"Kathmandu needs to speed up the process of managing earthquake risk to ensure its survival and protect its residents," said Dixit, who added that many of these activities can be carried out even with limited resources.

Kathmandu lies on the site of a prehistoric lake filled with the soft sediments, and this could affect the level of damage caused by an earthquake, according to NSET.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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