EarthquakesDisaster and recovery: The unexpected shall come to be expected

By Vincent T Gawronski

Published 4 May 2015

In the days following the Nepal earthquake, the media has been focusing on the heart-wrenching human interest and hero-tragedy stories, but what must be emphasized is that this disaster was anticipated. More importantly, we now have the tools and building technologies to mitigate the impact of even major earthquakes. The frequency of earthquakes has not changed over the past few million years, but now millions of people live in vulnerable situations. The unexpected must come to be expected. Much-needed humanitarian assistance must transition into long-term development efforts. Simply put, instilling a culture of disaster risk reduction, investing in hazard mitigation, building as best as we can, and retrofitting what remains, will save lives.

The full extent of the earthquake disaster in Nepal is still being calculated. With so many remote villages, it would be no surprise to see the death toll rise to 10,000 people. Nearly eight million people are likely to be directly affected, and a long-term, complex humanitarian crisis looms large. The potential for civil unrest and violence is very real.

The media has been focusing on the heart-wrenching human interest, hero-tragedy stories for several days, but what must be emphasized is that this disaster was anticipated.

More importantly, we now have the tools and building technologies to mitigate the impact of even major earthquakes.

What is needed is what the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has been advocating: an international commitment to disaster risk reduction.

Nepal is in one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world and earthquakes much more powerful than a 7.8 magnitude event will eventually occur. This due to the same forces that have produced the Himalayas, which have been created by the pressure of the India subcontinent slowly wedging itself under Tibet and Nepal. These geological stresses will continue to generate frequent earthquakes in the region. The region is also prone to floods, landslides, and droughts.

A disaster predicted
Experts have assessed the hazards and vulnerabilities and knew with a high degree of confidence what would happen if a large magnitude earthquake struck the Kathmandu Valley. A 2012 UNISDR news article, “Nepal’s tragedy in waiting,” was alarming: “Conservative estimates are that the next big earthquake could result in 100,000 dead, 200,000 injured and one to two million people displaced in the fabled Kathmandu Valley where memories live on of the 1934 earthquake which took more than 8,000 lives.”

Risk assessments were conducted, recommendations made, and some buildings seismically retrofitted, and yet three years later there have been so many deaths. Why?

The blame lies primarily on shoddy construction practices such as un-reinforced cinder block construction and failing to adequately secure roofs to support beams and walls and to a solid foundation, as well as the stock of aging, dilapidated structures.

Nepal’s unstable political situation also hampered disaster risk reduction and preparedness efforts. Despite the country’s popularity as a tourist destination, Nepal’s government is dysfunctional and corrupt. The country has been plagued by political violence and currently there is no constitution.