Murari Sharma: How to prevent losses in another massive earthquake in Nepal

A 7.9 Richter scale earthquake hammered Nepal last Saturday. The number of the dead has crossed 7,000 and still counting. It is expected to go over 10,000 deaths and nearly one-fourth of the Nepali population has been affected. It could have been worse if the quake had hit at night when people were sleeping. Invaluable cultural heritage and billions of rupees worth of private property has also been lost.

Nepal, located in a high-earthquake zone, cannot prevent tremors but it can reduce death and destruction when another tremor pummels it.

The death toll would not have been this big if necessary precautions had been taken to protect people and property before this seismic convulsion. Geologists, construction engineers, and disaster mitigation professionals have known for decades that Nepal is located on the fault line where the South Asian tectonic plate collides with the Eurasian plate. It was not a matter of if, but when, a major earthquake would shatter Nepali lives.

I had learned about this possibility 25 years ago when I headed the division of the Ministry of Home that deals with disaster preparedness, rescue and recovery. At that time, the national disaster committee, chaired by the home minister, had taken decisions to spread disaster education widely to the grassroots and to develop and implement construction codes and standards to mitigate the impact of disasters.

Unfortunately, nothing much seems to have been done about it over the years. We tend to think about disaster preventing and mitigating measures shortly after a disaster unfolds a horrible tragedy and makes us wiser. But we soon forget about the calamity, become complacent and move on, without doing anything to protect ourselves in the future.

The wanton death of more than 10,000 people in this earthquake — nearly as many as were killed during the decade-long Maoist insurgency — should unequivocally inform us that the complacency extracts an extraordinary price from us. We ought to realize that Nepal is in league with Japan and the US state of California in earthquake risks and learn from the measures to mitigate their perilous impact on people and physical infrastructure.

But before we begin to focus our energy on the future preparedness, we ought to deal with the crisis in hand efficiently, effectively and, of course, equitably. But that seems not happening.

The victims are crying for rescue, recovery, food, medicine and shelter. However, political parties have locked their invidious horns to cash in on the disaster. Besides, the government of Nepal (GON) and some of its national and international partners are at loggerheads as well. The GON has asked non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to distribute relief materials in coordination with its mechanism and to channel their relief money through the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or through an existing outfit, if they were registered after 25 April 2015. NGOs have slammed the government for this provision.

While political parties jockeying for advantage is repulsive, both the GON and NGOs are intriguingly partly right and partly are wrong. For the government, the victims in Barbak, Kathmandu, and Charikot are equal and they should receive equitable support from the state and the international community. Such equitable treatment becomes possible only if assistance is channeled through or coordinated by a single source.

The government is also eager to prevent vested interest groups from exploiting the people’s vulnerabilities at this critical time to advance their parochial goals. There have been reports that some international and national NGOs have been pushing their brand of religion together with their assistance. That is something the government should not allow to happen.

The critics of the government are right that the single door provision slows down relief distribution and puts the victims in the harm’s way further. The provision creates an avoidable bureaucratic delay and discourages the good Samaritans from getting involved spontaneously. Among the critics, some are gold-hearted citizens and organizations. Others are the vested interest groups who have their own narrow objective to promote leveraged by relief measures.

Can you meet the expectations of both sides? Largely you can. The government should not ask everyone to deposit their monetary contribution to the PMRF and relief materials to public agencies. That is going a little too far. It should rather insist that other agencies coordinate the distribution of money and materials with it, so it can avoid the same victims receiving relief from multiple sources.

Similarly, NGOs should not refuse to coordinate their relief efforts with public agencies for the sake of equity and justice as well.  The reason is that, driven to do it quickly, NGOs often limit their operations in relatively accessible area. Consequently, several NGOs may provide their assistance in a few accessible areas and a few victims, while those who live in remote and inaccessible areas and are needier might have none.

This is not time for either inter-party or government-NGO rivalry. Although time is running out, there is still hope for many missing victims to be rescued alive. Recovery of the dead bodies quickly is also essential for the closure of the case. The surviving victims need to be protected from hunger, disease and vagaries of nature.

It appears that there are enough resources around by now, leaving the challenge of their judicious distribution among the victims. The Nepalis themselves have raised millions of rupees and collected tons of relief materials. The international community has generously contributed money, personnel, means of transportation and goods — foods, tents, medicines, etc. What we now need is reaching the affected areas and distributing the basic things that people need to survive until they can grow their own food and build their own houses.

Once the rescue and recovery phases are over, Nepal ought to focus on rehabilitation and disaster preparedness, which has been left neglected for too long. To be sure, some work has been done in Nepal in this area over the years. But this earthquake proved that considerably more must be done in the future. We can learn from Japan and California, which are located in high earthquake areas.

The latter has developed a useful plan — California Earthquake Loss Reduction Plan 2007-2011 — which can be found at: http://www.seismic.ca.gov/pub/CSSC_2007-02_CELRP.pdf

The California plan has had interrelated 11 elements and 44 strategies. Safe construction standards, research into safe and cost-effective construction, public education and information, making the existing structures more earthquake-resilient, improved land use planning, etc. are the key elements of this plan. These measures should be adapted and improved to fit our requirements.

While Nepal is subject to frequent earthquakes, this is the second major trembler in the last 100 years. In 1934, an 8.3 Richter earthquake had killed more than 8,000 people Kathmandu. Even though that casualty figure looks smaller than this time, it was much bigger proportionately, given that only a small number of people lived in the Nepali capital in those days.

Next time, it could be worst. It will be foolish to repeat the same mistake again and again. We should be better prepared for the next major earthquake before the two plates collide again and destroy invaluable lives and valuable properties.

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