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When the Mountains Shook

By Kunda Dixit

Much has already been said about the April 25 earthquake that devastated Central Nepal, and much more information and analysis remains to come from geologists, sociologists, demographers, political scientists, architects, and urban planners. Something that these experts can all agree on, however, is that the earthquake was not was unexpected.

We know from historical records that a major earthquake hits Nepal every 80 to 100 years. One particularly devastating quake in 1344 destroyed the Kathmandu Valley and killed a king. The last major earthquake, a magnitude 8.3 on the Richter scale in 1934, left 10,000 dead out of a total population of 250,000 at the time.

The Himalayan Mountains, home to the world’s 20 highest peaks, were formed when the Indian continental tectonic plate broke away from Africa and slammed into the Eurasian plate 50 million years ago. India is ploughing under Eurasia at a rate of 6 centimeters a year and the mountains are still rising. Every so often, the plates deep underneath Nepal rupture along thrust faults, triggering massive quakes.

Scientists calculate that the tectonic stress building up in the subterranean rock strata needs to be released every 80 years or so. The question therefore is not if an earthquake would strike Kathmandu but when. United Nations projections showed that an 8.4 magnitude earthquake would destroy more than 60 percent of the buildings in Kathmandu Valley, killing more than 100,000 people outright depending on the time of day, and leaving three times that number injured. Many of Kathmandu’s 12 major hospitals would sustain damage, and there would be few open spaces left for survivors. International relief would not get through because of damaged airports and roads. Casualties would be even higher if the quake struck during school hours.  

As it turned out, Kathmandu came through relatively unscathed on April 25. Although the damage was serious and 1,300 people were killed, the destruction hardly came close to the predicted scale. One reason was that the initial quake registered a magnitude 7.8 with an epicenter 80 kilometers away from Kathmandu. An earthquake of the same intensity as 1934 would have been many times more severe and much more deadly.

This time, 85 percent of residences remained intact, the mobile phone network was overwhelmed but working, Nepal’s only international airport continued operating, highways linking the city were quickly cleared, and electricity was restored within a few days. The Valley’s World Heritage Sites took the brunt of the damage. Most of the 500-year-old temples and palace complexes were reduced to piles of rubble. Some poorly built residences collapsed, but most ferro-cement structures survived the shaking.

There were more than 100 aftershocks in the week after the initial quake, several of them above a magnitude six and other major earthquakes by themselves. This meant that most of the Valley’s 3 million residents slept outdoors for at least four nights in the few open spaces of the teeming Kathmandu metropolis. A lack of preparedness and planning among authorities was also responsible for some of the ensuing chaos. In the absence of government emergency response, communities helped themselves as best they could. There was little panic, looting, nor the predicted anarchy. Within a few days, up to a million people left Kathmandu to return to their home districts.

But while Kathmandu got off relatively lightly, the remote mountain districts surrounding it were seriously impacted. These are mostly poor villages inhabited by subsistence farmers, with rudimentary health services and low connectivity even at the best of times. When the shaking began, the mud, brick, and stone structures did not stand a chance. In the 12 affected districts, aerial photographs of the damage are identical: homes reduced to piles of stones and timber, villages clinging precariously to steep mountainsides with not a single house standing, and settlements wiped off the map by landslides. Additionally, one glacial avalanche swept away at least one village of 300 people.

But even here, the casualty rate could have been much higher. What saved many lives was that the earthquake hit on a Saturday when many of the destroyed classrooms had no students in them. The quake struck just before noon, when many families had already eaten and were out in their potato patches, or readying the terrace farms for maize. Many of the affected districts have also seen outmigration of up to one-third of their populations, mainly of men, which means that there were fewer people in the villages to begin with.

The lack of preparedness and slow response was ultimately a result of Nepal’s post-conflict instability. Politicians have spent the last nine years since the Nepalese Civil War trying to write a new constitution. There have been two elections in the country while a dispute over federalism in the new constitution has deadlocked negotiations over its progress. This has seriously affected governance, service delivery, investment, and infrastructure planning. Even before the earthquake struck, there were already problems with the slow pace of development.

Another factor that slowed the delivery of emergency relief and medicines in the past week is the fact that there have been no elections for local village, district, and municipal councils for the past 18 years. This fostered corruption and eroded the accountability of local politicians, directly impacting on the delivery and distribution of emergency relief supplies reaching remote villages.

The prompt outpouring of outside help was an indication of the level of goodwill Nepal commands among its big neighbors, India and China, as well as the international community. Hundreds of planes with rescue teams, relief supplies, and medicines have landed in Kathmandu in the past week. But challenge is to coordinate the aid and get it to where it is needed the most. With only five helicopters in the Nepalese Army, logistics remain the principle challenge: to get the emergency supplies to scattered settlements spread out over the mountains.

Natural disasters have a cathartic effect on countries in turmoil. The Sri Lankan War and the separatist conflict in Aceh both wound down in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit both countries hard 10 years ago. Will Nepal’s earthquake also urge politicians to resolve their disagreements and finally pass a new constitution?

We certainly hope so because the constitution is needed not just for stability and economic growth, but also so we can be prepared for the even bigger earthquake that one day will surely come.

*****

*****

Kunda Dixit is the editor of Nepali Times.

[Photo courtesy of Vera and Jean-Christophe]

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