Nepal: The Big One?

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.”

Piper is one of the driving forces behind a pioneering effort to change that. Bringing together a consortium including the U.N., the Red Cross, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, the $130 million project aims simultaneously to ramp up Nepal's ability to respond to a major earthquake and mitigate its effects by improving the structures of schools and hospitals — potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

“It's not going to save every life,” said Piper. “We can't retrofit every building in the Kathmandu Valley. But if we retrofit all the schools, if we fix the hospitals, if we shift the bridges, if we put water sources in where people are going to be evacuated ... we're going to have an impact.”

It's Dixit's NSET that's shown the way forward, or at least the first step. Realizing that demolishing and rebuilding 32,000 public schools would be impossible for a country with a per capita income of less than $500, the local organization has shown that it's feasible to retrofit schools to prevent loss of life — if not always the loss of the building — for as little as $30,000. And in outlying areas where costs escalate dramatically for concrete and rebar, almost any material, including traditional adobe, can be adapted to earthquake-safe designs. So far NSET has retrofitted some 200 schools, providing a strong proof of concept.

Dixit says that over the last decade, NSET has shown that preparing for disaster is not as costly as once imagined, that the knowledge and technology to make a difference is available, and developing countries don't have to be distressed that only rich nations can afford safety. But proving that is far from enough.

“Our school program is very famous, and everybody likes it, and we have been invited to other countries to talk about it, but there's a tremendous sense of guilt with us that we have only been able to go out to 200 schools,” said Dixit. “That is a gloomy picture.”

Even for stopgap measures like retrofitting, the challenges are enormous. Awareness of the risks is high, but poor people are still inclined to cut corners to save construction costs. Kathmandu has no mayor to ride herd on building inspectors, fire chiefs and other officials responsible for making the city safe. And national politicians — notoriously reluctant to focus on issues that won't gain them any political capital until years down the road, if at all — are now wrapped up in a complex peace process following a decade-long civil war.

So although everyone knows that if the big one were to hit tomorrow, the loss of life would be nothing short of catastrophic, in Dixit's words it's up to the banks, the ambassadors and the U.N. to take up the baton now.

“It's a crime not to have an earthquake resistant building in Kathmandu. It's a gross crime,” said Dixit.