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Nepal: The Big One?

A looming catastrophic earthquake in Nepal could unleash devastation that surpasses that of Haiti or Chile.

A photographer walks past Mount Thamserku at Syangboche in Nepal, Dec. 3, 2009. (Gopal Chitrakar/Reuters)

KATHMANDU, Nepal — When disaster specialist Amod Dixit looks out his window in Kathmandu, he sees collapsed bridges, demolished hospitals, schools reduced to rubble and dusty corpses lying in the street, the nightmare of Port-au-Prince revisited on his Himalayan home.

“Unfortunately, that is the reality (of what we are facing), if not worse,” said Dixit. “If Kathmandu is impacted with a shaking of an intensity IX on the Mercalli intensity scale, the aftermath is going to be much worse than in Haiti.”

Unlike the more commonly known Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of an earthquake at its epicenter, the Mercalli scale measures the intensity of shaking in specific locations — basically by measuring the destruction of buildings and natural structures.

Dixit has every reason to be worried. The climax of the collision between tectonic plates that thrust up the Himalayas, Nepal is criss-crossed by geologic fault lines — some of which have been building up pressure for centuries. Even if it happens 185 miles away, an earthquake that measures 6 or 7 in magnitude on the Richter scale at its epicenter could generate level VIII, IX or even X level shaking on the Mercalli scale in Kathmandu.

In other words, many believe Kathmandu is overdue for more devastating shaking than the IX level disaster that flattened Haiti this January. The last time a quake like that struck here, in 1934, a quarter of all the homes in the country were destroyed, dozens of revered ancient monuments collapsed and more than 20,000 people lost their lives. The next “big one” could be much worse — especially here in the Kathmandu Valley, a bowl that will trap and amplify the wave of energy.

“Chile has had a huge magnitude earthquake in the past, and as a medium income country it has the resources and institutions in place that have built earthquake-resistant housing and infrastructure,” said Saurabh Dani, disaster management specialist for the World Bank's South Asia team. “Haiti and Nepal are both low income countries, with poor building standards, (and) even if the magnitude of the earthquake is less than the one in Chile, the impact in loss of life would be catastrophic.”

Since 1997, the population of the Kathmandu Valley has doubled, from about 1.5 million people to more than 3 million. Of more serious concern, the population density has also increased dramatically. Each year, between 10,000 and 20,000 new buildings mushroom, most of them constructed with little more than a wink and a nod to the building code, with higher floors built off the books, concrete watered down to save on material, structural columns eliminated and emergency exits ignored. When the big one comes, two-thirds of them will collapse, and the casualty rate will be high.

“The density of the population in each household has seen dramatic growth, so the lethality of the earthquake will be much higher (than we once expected),” said Dixit. “Our estimate (of 10 years ago) of 40,000 dead and 100,000 people injured and requiring hospitalization could easily be doubled — or make it two-and-a-half times or three times.”

And that's only the beginning. Unlike Haiti, Nepal is a landlocked country, with the high peaks of the Himalayas separating it from neighbors, like India and China, that could aid in relief efforts. The only lifeline for supplies and rescue teams for Kathmandu will likely be the small, single-runway airport. And there are no guarantees that its air traffic control system, or its water, electricity and fuel supply will survive the first wave of tremors.

“There is no emergency response plan for the airport,” said Dixit. “There's a plan for emergency landings, but I've not seen or been told about any earthquake emergency contingency plan for airport operation.”

As witnessed in Haiti, managing the relief effort for a disaster on the scale of the one expected here presents a tremendous challenge — even with the U.S. military's Southern Command only 700 miles away in Miami. The conventional wisdom is that rescuers have just 72 hours to pull people out of the rubble, after which any survivor is considered a fluke. And despite the herculean efforts deployed in Port-au-Prince, relief workers were only able to save about 130 people from among a hundred thousand who were buried alive. The answer clearly lies in prevention — or mitigation — rather than rescue. There, too, Nepal's situation is grim.

“My preoccupation is how do we reduce the number of people we have to extract from the rubble,” said Robert Piper, the head of the United Nations' humanitarian effort in Nepal. “That's the mitigation measures, and that's where our preparedness is nothing short of pathetic.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/asia/100316/earthquake-disaster-Haiti-Chile