Quake-prone Kathmandu awaits the next big one
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.
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.
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)