Quake-prone Kathmandu awaits the next big one

May 12, 2009

Walking through the maze of narrow, crowded lanes of Kathmandu’s old city is, at the best of times, a harrowing experience.

Motorcycles, rickshaws and cars squeeze their way through the tiny, winding streets lined with dilapidated medieval buildings, Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas.

Mangled lines of power cables dangle dangerously above as you dodge the cows that mingle with traders, shoppers and tourists in the densely packed, bustling streets.

With a history and culture dating back 2,000 years, the Nepalese capital – and the Kathmandu Valley where it is situated – ranks among the oldest human settlements in the central Himalayas.

But the region also ranks as one of the world’s hotspots for earthquakes.

Nepal’s lack of disaster preparedness, the decrepit buildings packed cheek by jowl along the tiny lanes and the large families who live in these homes make the prospect of a major earthquake a serious concern.

But, unfortunately, this is a very real possibility.

According to experts, a quake occurs every 75 years in the Kathmandu Valley, with the last one in 1934 when an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 killed over 8,500 people.

There are more than 2 million people living in the valley — 9 percent of the country’s total population — and given the influx of economic migrants and people displaced by conflict, the area has one of the highest population densities in Nepal.

According Nepal Red Cross Society’s 2008 Earthquake Contingency Plan, the valley would suffer serious disruption in the event of an earthquake.

“Roads, bridges, water storage facilities, communications networks would be seriously damaged by warping or subsidence, and access routes blocked by landslides and the collapse of road-beds,” the plan says.

Experts predict that an earthquake in the range of 8 on the Richter scale is due anytime. They estimate it would kill at least 40,000 people, injure 90,000, destroy 60 percent of the buildings and leave almost 1 million homeless.

But the country is one of the poorest in the world, and not surprisingly, the government is ill-equipped to deal with such a major calamity.

Nepal is reeling from a 10-year civil conflict that ended in 2006. The Maoist insurgency killed more than 13,000 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and devastated the economy.

The U.N. Development Programme’s 2007/8 Human Development Index ranks Nepal 142 out of 177 countries, where more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

With so many priorities, officials admit it is not easy to give disaster preparedness the attention it deserves.

As a result, public awareness of earthquakes and other natural disasters is very low.

Mass urbanization has led to unplanned construction of houses and buildings – most of which do not adhere to building regulations and are therefore not earthquake resistant.

Thousands continue to migrate to the capital, adding to the existing population pressures.

First responders in such an emergency – such as the army and police – do not have the necessary expertise and resources for search and rescue operations.

Observers say the government also needs to have a better operational procedure in place that involves coordination with international and national rescue teams.

But while aid agencies stress Nepal needs to push forward on better earthquake preparedness, most in the city can do nothing but wait for the next big one.

(Nita Bhalla covers South Asia for AlertNet. She is based in New Delhi)


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Dear Nita Bhalla !
I am happy that you have released the real picture of old Kathmandu in this online. This is the cultural history of our country. I extend thanks about your attempt in writing and picturing the scene & scenery.
Thank you.

Dirgha Raj Prasai

Posted by Dirgha Raj Prasai from Nepal | Report as abusive

Thank you, Nita, for highlighting what should be of major concern to both the citizens and government of Nepal. I’m an American living part time in Kathmandu now for 30 years. My other residence is in West Los Angeles where I’ve personally lived through a relatively large earthquake and have experienced the damage it brings. As such I’ve been warning people in Nepal for many years now about the imminent dangers of the next earthquake, especially what happens to brick buildings which have no flexibility and tend to just crack and fall apart. Most buildings in Kathmandu over the last 40 years of so are made of bricks often with little low grade cement between them. Due to the Maoist insurgency, many people moved to the Kathmandu Valley for security reasons. Those with land in the Valley built upward in order to profit from the housing shortage. Now we have wall to wall brick building which are 6 to 8 stories high. When the “Big One” comes (and it’s not if, it’s when) there will most likely be very large piles of bricks where there used to be buildings. I strongly urge anyone living in the Kathmandu Valley to Google “earthquake preparedness” and then make a plan and teach others.

Posted by Rain Gray | Report as abusive

Thanks for providing informations on earthquake. this site is extremly good. Aniwazs hoping for more relevant and acuurate information on earthquake

Posted by Pratik Upreti | Report as abusive