Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Population

NEPAL: Quake Strategy Needs a Jolt

Sudeshna Sarkar

KATHMANDU, Sep 20 2011 (IPS) - Though Nepal was relatively unscathed by the earthquake that wreaked havoc in the adjacent areas of India this week, it showed up this Himalayan country’s inadequate disaster preparedness.

“The impact of Sunday’s earthquake was relatively low,” says Amod Mani Dixit, executive director at the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal. “Though 6.8 on the Richter scale, it measured about 5 on the Modified Mercalli Scale (that measures the intensity) in Kathmandu. But what if a bigger one comes along?”

Dixit has in mind the historical temblor on the Indo-Nepal border in 1934 that killed over 8,000 people in Nepal alone and destroyed more than 80,000 buildings. Fifteen other major quakes have rattled Nepal since 1223 with the last one, occurring in 1988, destroying nearly 65,000 buildings and killing at least 700.

In comparison, Sunday’s quake has an official toll of six deaths, though other reports say that nearly a dozen people died. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai called an emergency meeting of the cabinet soon after the quake, and security forces swung into action to rescue those trapped under the debris of collapsed buildings.

But, Nepal still needs to massively scale up its disaster preparedness to cope with a killer quake.

While India has a National Disaster Response Force comprising 10 battalions, with about 1,000 trained personnel per battalion, Nepal has no such force dedicated to combating disasters.

India deployed about 5,000 army troops to help deal with the aftermath of Sunday’s temblor, which claimed at least 50 lives and left thousands stranded in the worst affected eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim.

In Nepal, Dixit estimates there are about 600 trained personnel at the mid-level and another 1,000 – 2,000 at a basic level for providing medical first response, collapsed structure search and rescue, and light search and rescue.

But to cope with a really severe tremor, there should be at least 2,500 mid-level trained rescuers for the rural areas and 1,500 for the urban areas. In addition, Nepal also needs a major taskforce of at least 80,000 community volunteers to fan out to the nearly 4,000 village development committee areas.

The biggest danger during a killer quake, Dixit warns, will come from Nepal’s buildings, almost 93 percent of which are non-engineered and informally constructed in the traditional manner without any or little intervention by qualified architects and engineers.

“You can imagine the vulnerability of these buildings, their resistance to earthquakes,” he says.

In the worst-case scenario, he assesses that 60 percent of the buildings in Kathmandu will be damaged beyond repair, which is also likely to be the case in the rest of Nepal.

“We have an excellent building code but we have not had much success in implementing it,” he says. “Perhaps about five of the 100-odd municipalities follow them, like Kathmandu and Dharan.”

A major tremor will also hit other critical infrastructure like hospitals, airports, telecom, drinking water supplies, bridges and roads.

“These will function only at 50 percent of their capacity in a worst-case scenario,” Dixit estimates.

A key factor in battling the next earthquake or any other disaster will be state policies and leadership.

While international donors are ready to help a developing country like Nepal cope with crises, an acute political instability continuing for nearly a decade has hampered a succession of governments from taking advantage of the offers fully.

Though the government approved of a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management in 2009 and the cabinet approved a Bill for a new Disaster Management Act the same year, it is yet to be approved by the parliament.

“That is definitely impairing our progress,” U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator Robert Piper told the media.

Piper says “emergency actors” like the U.N. agencies, and “long-term development actors” like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the governments of the U.S., Britain and Australia, and the European Commission have built “a strong international collaboration to help Nepal prepare for and deal with risk.”

The new Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium has already drawn up a work plan but is hampered from putting it into action due to the absence of a National Disaster Management Authority that will be formed once the shelved Bill becomes an Act.

From 2007-2010, the Japanese government funded a natural disaster reduction programme, seeking to minimise the impact of potential earthquakes on seismically vulnerable communities in five municipalities in Nepal.

It was part of a five-country regional programme in South Asia with the goal of supporting regional cooperation through knowledge sharing and development of best practices. The other four countries were Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Political friction has come in the way of effective regional cooperation even though the eight South Asian states – Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan – are formally part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

SAARC is yet to show a united face to disasters though the 13th SAARC summit of the heads of states of the member countries agreed in 2005 that mutual cooperation was a must for effective disaster preparedness. In the following year, the SAARC comprehensive framework on disaster management was articulated.

At home, Nepal needs large-scale awareness programmes to change the mindsets of both its leaders and people.

Images of the reaction to Sunday’s quake, broadcast by the local TV stations, showed pandemonium in parliament as lawmakers rushed out pell-mell once the tremors began. Panic-stricken people jumped out of windows suffering fractures and other injuries.

“If an eighth grader in California can behave calmly during an earthquake, why not a grownup person in Nepal?” asks Dixit. “In our schools we teach what earthquakes are and what causes them. But how to survive them and what to do during an earthquake is not included in the curriculum. We have islands of success, but we need is to upscale everything.”

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