ANALYSIS-Himalayan quake a wake-up call for unprepared S.Asia

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 September 2011 11:30 GMT
A more powerful quake due in region, say experts

NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - The earth moves and across a metropolis, the schools and offices come crashing down, bridges snap sending cars smashing below, and fallen power lines set off fires. In seconds, the quake has left a world capital with mass casualties and economic losses.

That could be the scenario in many of South Asia’s populous cities which sit on high-risk seismic zones, but are seriously unprepared to respond – a fearful reality brought home by Sunday’s quake in the Himalayas, which killed at least 100.

Experts say the region got off relatively lightly this time, with the 6.8 magnitude jolt that had its epicentre in sparsely populated northeast India. They say a more powerful quake is due and countries must prepare or face losing not only citizens, but also billions of dollars that have been spent on development.

An economic boom in the last two decades has also seen a rapid explosion in loosely-regulated construction in cities, increasing the risk that any large quake will destroy badly built houses and offices and wreak damage in densely-populated areas.    

"In South Asia we haven't had a high magnitude earthquake in the Himalayas since 1934. This recent one hasn’t released all the pressure which has built up from decades of the tectonic plates pushing against one another," said Arjun Katoch, a disaster management advisor.

"We are due for a big one with a likely magnitude of 8. The problem is South Asia is not at all prepared to handle it," said Katoch, who led the United Nations’ disaster response team in Japan.

South Asia, home to one fifth of humanity, is one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world.

Six out of eight countries – India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan – are located within the seismically active Himalayan-Hindukush belt.

The region witnesses around 100,000 minor quakes every year, and one of magnitude 8 or greater every 25 years. The last earthquake in the region was in Pakistan in 2005, measuring 7.6 and killing more than 73,000 people.

Inertia and lack of finances has meant any progress in disaster preparedness has been too slow.

BUILDINGS KILL

Experts say lax building standards, neglected fire and emergency services, dense populations and rapid yet poorly planned urbanisation means a major quake may devastate capitals.

New Delhi, a mega-conurbation of 16 million people, serves as a typical example of the threats faced.

 Over the last decade, the city and its environs have seen rapid unregulated construction of malls, office and apartment towers and private homes – most of which are not built to seismically safe standards, despite codes stipulating this.

Meanwhile in other parts of the city, narrow crowded streets are lined with decrepit buildings packed cheek by jowl, waiting to crumble onto the traders, shoppers and tourists mingling below.

“Buildings kill people, not earthquakes,” said Robert Piper, Resident Coordinator for the United Nations in Nepal.

“The building code is a serious issue. In a place like Kathmandu, a new building pops up every day which has not been built to code."

Experts say buildings like hospitals and schools need to be retrofitted, referring to 2005 Pakistan quake where 17,000 children were killed when school roofs and walls collapsed.

Few of South Asia’s metros have open spaces, leaving people nowhere to seek refuge if buildings collapse. And in some cities, tower blocks have been built on flood-planes of rivers, which would cave in if a major tremor hit.

In many countries like Bhutan and Nepal, infrastructure to remote areas is a challenge – as seen with the recent earthquake in India where rescuers have for days been struggling to get to isolated villages, cut off by landslides blocking roads.

DECREPIT FIRE ENGINES

The region's fire and ambulance services, considered to be at the frontline of disaster response, are alarmingly unequipped and untrained for search and rescue operations and medical care.

According studies by the Nepal Red Cross Society, an 8 magnitude quake in the hotspot Kathmandu Valley would kill at least 40,000 people, injure 90,000, destroy 60 percent of the buildings and leave almost one million homeless.

Yet there are only eight fire engines, most of which are more than 30 years old, to serve the population of 4 million people living in and around the Nepali capital.

“There has been progress and different countries are at different levels of preparedness. But overall it has been slow,” said Madhavi Ariyabandu, regional programme officer for the U.N. agency for disaster reduction (UNISDR) for Asia & the Pacific.

“Levels of poverty and conflicts are high across the region. Getting international funding for disaster-risk reduction is difficult as you can’t measure it easily.”

Piper says it’s a race against time.

“I see a tremendous amount of work over the last decade to move development forward at high cost – in money and sweat. This could be erased in matter of 40 seconds. So we have a lot to protect.”

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