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Drawing lessons from the Nepal disaster

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  27 April 2015 12:00 AM GMT

As Nepal painfully comes to grips with the aftermath of the quake, the magnitude of the disaster is slowly coming to light. Rescuers are battling against time in bad weather, with thousands of survivors still buried under debris. Strong aftershocks are complicating search operations, with the threat of more landslides looming. Within 24 hours of the quake, the death toll is already hovering around 2,300. Parts of Kathmandu have been flattened and power lines are down. An estimated 3 lakh tourists, including pilgrims and climbers from Assam, are stuck in the capital and elsewhere. Numerous reports of stricken people trapped in the hills are filtering in. Mount Everest has been hit, with an avalanche wiping away parts of the base camp area and killing at least 17 mountaineers. Hundred of climbers and trekkers are missing while two teams of climbers from Assam are stranded at different parts of the mountain. The disaster has hit the Himalayan tion at the height of its tourist season, which accounts for one-fifth of its foreign exchange earnings. According to the United tions, nearly 50 lakh people have been impacted by the 7.9 magnitude quake, the strongest in Nepal in 81 years. The country’s worst quake with 8.1 magnitude in 1934 had claimed around 8,500 lives, followed by above-6.5 magnitude quakes in 1980, 1988 and 2011.

Experts have pointed out that this was a disaster waiting to happen, with the Indian plate constantly pushing against and slipping underneath the Eurasian plate below the Himalayas. Studies have noted that the entire Kathmandu valley itself appears to focus and intensify the destructive shaking of seismic waves. Seismological data gathered after Saturday’s ‘thrust fault’ quake are reportedly showing that a part of India slid 10 feet northwards under Nepal within a few seconds. Such are the colossal geological forces pushing and pulling deep down underneath our feet. We need to appreciate their dimensions, while understanding that earthquakes don’t kill as much as unsafe buildings do. About 14.5 lakh people live in Kathmandu, the majority in ramshackle houses not designed to withstand strong shaking. The pattern is distressingly familiar — widespread poverty, rapid increase in urban population and lack of adherence to improved building norms. Meeting scientific building codes in new construction or retrofitting old constructions to make them quake resistant, is way beyond the means of most people.

This scerio holds true for Assam too, but aggravated by a lax and irresponsible attitude to disaster magement in the State administration. Building norms are rarely followed, while inspection is nil. Located in one of the most seismically active zones of the world, Assam suffered much in the 8.7 magnitude quake of 1897 and 8.6 magnitude quake of 1950. These quakes were truly catastrophic, the forces released many, many times larger than the Nepal quake on Saturday. The two great quakes have etched a lasting impression on public memory here, which explains the diehard resistance to mega dams like the one planned over the Subansiri. After the 2010 Haiti quake which claimed 10,000 lives, American seismologist Roger Bilham went to the extent of calling poorly designed concrete structures ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But the awareness about quake resistant structures is missing in Delhi as well. The country’s capital has long been identified as a high risk zone due to substandard structures and high population density. But even a relatively minor proposal to create 70 disaster magement lanes to remain free exclusively for emergency vehicles — has remained stuck for the past two years.

The tiol Disaster Magement Authority (NDMA) had drawn up an ambitious earthquake risk mitigation project to be implemented across the country by 2015, but it is yet to take off. Under this project, the NDMA aims to make all new buildings disaster resistant and retrofit old buildings, in coordition with governments of States lying in seismic zones. Over 58.6 per cent of the country has been identified to be highly vulnerable to earthquakes, with the NDMA drawing up a list of 38 cities falling under moderate to high risk seismic zones. It is imperative that these initiatives are seriously taken forward and implemented in all sincerity. Prime Minister rendra Modi is drawing kudos for his swift reaction to Saturday’s quake, reassuring Nepal of all help and rushing relief to the stricken neighbour. He also immediately called up the Chief Ministers of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to review and coordite crisis measures with them. It was Modi who was at the helm of Gujarat when it was hit by the destructive Bhuj earthquake in 2001, and he is drawing upon all that experience now. The entire country is looking forward to such a purposeful thrust to its preparedness in meeting and overcoming disasters.

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