With tremors declining in magnitude and emergency relief crews packing to leave, Nepal is likely to slip from the world’s attention. But the unstable geological condition that brought the latest disaster still lurks.
Unless the government seizes this moment, Nepal will face new calamities. The human tragedy in Nepal, which cost more than 8,000 lives, is a warning to countries in the Himalayan region nestled on the moving tectonic plates to transform relief operations into long-term preparations against devastating earthquakes.
The devastation from the Nepal earthquake highlights the vulnerability of populations living across the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. Poverty, migration from rural to urban areas and uncontrolled urban development compound the damage and disasters associated with natural hazards like earthquakes in the region.
Nepal’s earthquake should not have come as a surprise. A 2001 study ranked Kathmandu first among vulnerable cities that could expect thousands of fatalities in an earthquake. A similar Nepal earthquake in 1934 as well as those for Afghanistan in 2002, India in 2005 and Pakistan in 2008 were responsible for massive loss of life and property in the region. Geologically, the continuous sinking of the Indian tectonic plate below the Eurasian plate – lifting the relatively young Himalayan Mountains – at least 55 million years old – also contributes to earthquakes long warned by researchers.
Many regions including Japan, Chile and California frequently experience earthquakes with little impact. These countries have developed the capacity to handle such hazards. Despite warnings from seismologists and technologies available for disaster preparation, there is no such guarantee of safety for Himalayan communities in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar and Pakistan.
The Hindu Kush is one of the most geologically and environmentally sensitive regions in the world – the biologically diverse and sensitive landscapes are considered among the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. Natural systems are under pressure for a number of reasons: Rapid population growth in the region has led to reduced opportunities in rural areas. The promise of a better life in the cities contributes to rapid migration from rural to urban areas.
The urban population of the Himalayas has more than doubled since the 1980s. Kathmandu like many other Himalayan metropolises is now home to more than a million people. Growing demand for housing combined with poor governance has allowed construction of structurally poor buildings in unstable and hazard-prone areas. Zoning and building regulations are often completely disregarded.
According to a USAID fact report in Nepal, the 1994 building codes are not well enforced; on average, two engineers are available in a municipality where 400 building permits are issued every year.
Cities like Istanbul, Islamabad and Delhi are prone to similar development and vulnerable to earthquakes. According to many vulnerability reports, the chances of surviving an earthquake of magnitude 7 on the Richter scale are much lower in Islamabad as compared to San Francisco or Tokyo. Compared to the Nepal earthquake, Chile experienced an earthquake of magnitude 8.2 in 2014 with a loss of six lives. A May 30 earthquake in a remote area of Japan, magnitude 7.8, occurred with no loss to life or infrastructure.
The Nepal earthquake and the underlying conditions laying the groundwork for disastrous outcomes highlight how poverty, weak governance and uncontrolled urbanization increase human vulnerability. Such systemic conditions drive poor populations to live in hazard-prone regions, often becoming the main victims in disasters, not just in Nepal, but throughout the Himalayan region. A recent study suggests that more than 38 cities in the Indian Himalayas are not prepared for such an earthquake and 60 percent of Indian sub-continental landmass is vulnerable to the northward shift of the tectonic plates.
Disaster preparedness, including risk identification, reduction, early warning, and capacity building, has been proven to reduce calamities. However, these long-term measures are often mired in the politics and corruption of development.