"A fool though he lives in the company of the wise learns nothing of the true doctrine as a spoon tastes not the flavor of the soup,” said Siddartha Gautam. He must have divined future catastrophes, our follies and thus admonished us.
Nepal faces numerous natural and human-made disasters every year, yet remains vulnerable to them. Hundreds of people lose their lives, property and the environment degrades due to such catastrophes. Such phenomenon has significant and multiple negative impact on the people and the nation as well. Earthquake, floods, landslides, debris flow, glacial lake outburst, avalanche, cold and heat waves, thunderbolt, forest fires, drought, storms, hailstorms, epidemic, settlement fire, accident, industrial and technological hazards, soil erosion, and social disruption are some major natural and human-induced calamities that wreak havoc on us.
According to ‘Nepal Disaster Report 2009: The Hazardscape and Vulnerability’ by global standard, Nepal ranked 23rd in terms of total natural hazard-related deaths from 1988 to 2007 with 7,000 deaths. Its position ranks 7th for deaths related to floods, landslides and avalanche combined together, and occupies the 8th place for flood-related deaths alone. 64 districts out of 75 are prone to disasters of some type. 49 districts are susceptible to floods and/or landslides, 23 districts are prone to wildfires and 1 to windstorms. Globally, Nepal ranks 11th in terms of vulnerability to earthquakes, and faces high risk of water-related disasters. 20 Tarai districts face the risk of floods, the hilly region of landslide and the high hills of glacial lake outburst flood and avalanche. Basically, water-related disasters threaten almost all districts with varying frequency and magnitude. But the entire nation is at high risk of a devastating earthquake that would serve as a nemesis for us.
From 1983–2007, 22,223 people lost their lives within a span of 24 years as a result of natural calamities mainly floods, landslides, fires, epidemics, winds, hail, thunderstorms, earthquakes, avalanches and stampedes. Thousands became homeless, poorer and were disabled. Property worth billions of rupees was damaged. 16,888 people were killed and 1,350 disappeared in an armed conflict, a human-induced tragedy, within a decade.
Disaster creates, aggravates and perpetuates poverty. There is a causal relationship between disaster and poverty. Poverty renders people more vulnerable to disasters and weakens the coping capacity of people and the country. It calls for huge resources, time and patience to rescue, relieve and rehabilitate people, repair damage, and rebuild the infrastructure of a country.
In Nepal, more than 100 cases of flood and landslides occur yearly which claim more than 1,000 lives, displace 16,000 families, affect 150,000 families and damage properties worth 1.82 billion rupees beyond recovery.
Let’s take a possible earthquake scenario in the Kathmandu Valley. According to a 2010 estimation made by National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET-Nepal), if an earthquake of similar intensity as that of 1934 strikes the valley, about 100,000 people would be killed, 100,000 seriously injured, 200,000 injured and 1,500,000 rendered homeless as 60 percent buildings would collapse. 60 percent of basic services like drinking water, electricity, telecommunications, hospitals, school buildings, etc would be dysfunctional, forget about the minutiae.
Unlike other disasters an earthquake does not kill people. It’s the man-made structures that do—houses, schools, colleges or office buildings and other infrastructure not capable of resisting certain magnitude of earthquakes. They injure, kill people, and damage property. Therefore, the onus of protecting people lies on the government.
Haphazard urbanization, gross violation of building codes, untrammelled settlements on river banks, burgeoning construction of high-rise condominiums, non-repair of basic infrastructure, shrinking open spaces, drying water sources, and weakening carrying capacity of the valley contribute to injuring, maiming and killing of thousands of people and damaging the infrastructure.
The policymakers say they are busy trying to ward off political disaster, ignoring imminent danger that lies ahead. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Natural disasters spell cataclysmic impact on governments and political parties. Politics sans people is unimaginable. It seems that policymakers are living in an ivory tower. The government is nonchalant. Till date, Nepal has just spent 400-600 million rupees for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and 1.67 billion rupees in response to various contretemps in 2007. Out of 1.67 billion rupees, over 50 percent was the overhead of humanitarian support. It is indicative of the vulnerability to catastrophes and the ensuing consequences.
If a powerful quake struck the valley during workday hours, thousands of people would be trapped in the rubbles of schools, colleges, office buildings, and houses. Major bridges would collapse, roads will be blocked and communications completely cut off. It would impede survivors from moving to safer places, knowing about aftershocks and tracing one’s family and friends. Most importantly, it would hinder all rescue efforts.
Communication and transportation are most crucial during a tragedy. Given the present situation, they would be dysfunctional in the aftermath of a strong earthquake. Old and unrepaired roads, bridges, fragile houses, very few and unaffordable satellite phones, no information and work on safer places and lack of trained and sufficient rescuers—the situation would be formidable.
The government cannot preclude natural disasters. Earthquake rocks without warning. No system can predict the happening and magnitude of an earthquake. But the government can prepare for the looming disaster. We have been ignoring forthcoming risks. Disaster preparedness has remained a vexed question.
We lack all-terrain vehicles, fire engines and water to douse fires, safe places to gather, drinking water, food and other necessities, and have a remote possibility of receiving support from other countries, if the only airport develops fissures and its radar gets damaged. This makes dispatching rescuers and relief materials to different parts of the valley well-nigh impossible.
The NSET-Nepal, Radio Sagarmatha and quite a few I/NGOs are sensitizing people regarding disasters, which is a vital part of disaster preparedness. The government agencies are fast asleep. They will wake up only when a powerful earthquake shakes them. Political instability has ruined the country. The shiftless bureaucracy has found a good excuse in it.
Political will power and stability have far-reaching consequences. It seems that the people of Nepal are unaware of it. They have voted for fractured parliaments since 1990. An undemocratic but a stable government proves better than a ‘democratic’ but unstable government like ours in the face of catastrophes.
The earthquakes in Chile and Haiti should serve as a caveat for us. A tremor measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale that hit Chile on February 27, 2010, left 486 people dead and 370,000 homes damaged. Another quake with a magnitude of 7 rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010, killing 220,000 people, injuring 300,000 and leaving 1,000,000 homeless.
The earthquake that struck Chile was far stronger than the one that shook Haiti, yet the death toll was much higher in Haiti. The reasons are apparent. Chile is richer and better prepared. It strictly enforced building codes, developed effective emergency response, and had been handling seismic cataclysms since long. Political stability made it feasible to have efficacious disaster preparedness.
Contrarily, Haiti is poor and has no building codes. Its rampant corruption and recklessness rendered all preventive measures as non-existent. Nepal and Haiti display similar characteristics on this regard. Consequently, Nepal’s particularly Kathmandu Valley’s fate would be similar to that of Haiti, if a strong earthquake hits Nepal today.