We knew an earthquake was due when a whopper of 7.6 magnitude struck in April 2015, followed by more than 300 aftershocks. The new constitution that was promulgated soon after had provisions for building an earthquake-resilient society. Various parties in the 2017 local elections made grandiose promises to do the same. With the wounds still fresh, national level policies were drafted. But as our memories faded and new priorities surfaced, most of these plans never materialized, and those that did were half-heartedly implemented.
In the 2022 local elections, though disasters and climate change have made it into party manifestos, the potentially more devastating earthquakes seem to be missing. As we live in a seismically vulnerable zone, not prioritizing earthquake risk reduction could have devastating consequences, says experts ApEx spoke to. “We have seen the damage an earthquake can inflict, how it causes so much trauma and pushes back years of progress,” says Khadga Sen Oli, advocacy and outreach manager at National Society for Earthquake Technology, Nepal (NSET).
Before the 2015 earthquakes, natural disasters were dealt with after the event, our efforts limited to management of its effects. But now the emphasis is on disaster risk reduction with action being taken before a calamity to mitigate loss of lives and infrastructure. Our approach to disaster has changed because the Gorkha earthquake that killed 9,000 people and injured over 100,000 more made us realize the importance of being prepared for tragedies. However, in a disaster-prone nation where floods, landslides, and forest fires have routinely claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives every year, earthquakes have slipped under the radar.
Monika Jha, joint secretary at the National Earthquake Monitoring and Research Center under the Department of Mines and Geology, says nature was kind to us in 2015. There could have been a lot more damage, given how underprepared and ill-equipped we were to handle a disaster of that scale. Though people are more aware and knowledgeable about earthquakes now, it still isn’t enough to ensure we will be able to deal with another disaster.
Jha blames lack of studies and research. Nepal just hasn’t invested enough in collecting data for earthquake hazard risk assessment. “There also aren’t many experts in the field. Moreover, our education system doesn’t have seismology in its curriculum,” she says.
“We need better strategies at the national level and, more importantly, for the local authorities to implement them,” says Jha. The work currently being done feels like an afterthought, carried out just for the heck of it. Raju Thapa, acting chairperson at Disaster Preparedness Network-Nepal, says government guidelines stipulate that earthquakes have to be the number one priority for those working in disaster-related sectors. But we are short sighted and only focus on immediate threats. “In western Nepal, it’s been 500 years since the last earthquake. That’s unnatural. We are, as scary as that sounds, sitting on a ticking time-bomb,” he says.
That doesn’t mean we should panic, even though Thapa wishes people would act like an earthquake could happen anytime, rather than [wrongly] believe we are safe as we recently had one. He says we shouldn’t forget that we live in an earthquake prone zone and that there is still no preparation whatsoever. “We didn’t learn from the past. We made commitments but once the initial shock wore off, we were back to our old ways,” he adds. Experts say that as a nation we have relegated the horrors of the 2015 earthquakes to the back of our minds. Not that we should be reliving it every minute but it’s unwise (even outright stupid) to forget its harsh lessons.
Many homes that were battered in 2015 are still supported by beams. There are structures in narrow alleys of Ason, Kathmandu and Patan, Lalitpur that are on the verge of collapse. Old buildings have had facelifts in the form of additional floors. Building codes are still not followed owing to weak monitoring. People compromise on labor and construction material for short-term benefits. There is a general sense of indifference over earthquakes because ‘the worst is behind us.’ Some random middle-aged people ApEx questioned on the streets of Jawalakhel, Lalitpur, said they are sure there won’t be another earthquake for next 50 years or so and the country shouldn’t waste valuable resources preparing for one.
But predicting an earthquake a few minutes or even seconds before can save lives. And that’s not something to be taken lightly, says Thapa. The primary wave in an earthquake comes a few seconds before the secondary wave and early warning gives you a better chance of survival. In Banke, the local communities have invested in an early warning system. It will arm them to take shelter during earthquakes, crucial seconds before the event. We need more such initiatives, including but not limited to better infrastructure to build a more resilient society that can withstand future shocks.
The constitution makes local bodies accountable for disaster prevention and management. The local government operation act has directives to prepare for future earthquakes. NSET’s Oli believes the onus lies on local governments to take concrete actions. Apart from launching awareness programs, they must also implement national level policies to build capacity in their communities. Training a few teams of volunteers to create emergency responders should, according to Oli, be another priority. “In an emergency, unskilled help can make the problem worse. So local government bodies must teach and train people to respond.”
Ramesh Guragain, deputy executive director at NSET, says the biggest post-2015 earthquake achievement was the formation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority. The focus shifted to studying risks in advance and working to reduce them. In many villages, as laborers worked on rebuilding damaged homes, they acquired the skill and understanding of how to build better, earthquake-resistant structures. “That awareness and knowledge need to be taken to other parts of the country, but that’s not happening. The soon-to-be elected local authorities must facilitate that kind of networking,” he says.
Soon after the local elections, NSET is launching a training program it plans on taking to all 753 rural municipalities and municipalities across Nepal. Guragain explains the point of doing this after the elections is so that the newly elected officials know what needs to be done and how, and so that they factor in earthquakes in their planning. It’s the local authorities’ responsibility to keep reminding people about the devastation earthquakes can cause.
As they will be in office for the next five years, they can do a lot even if they take small steps—but they need to act fast. “In the past we weren’t able to effectively lobby at the political level. The participation of local authorities has also been unsatisfactory. But going forward, we are hoping for better understanding and cooperation from them,” he says.