Posted by: John Elliott | April 28, 2015

Nepal’s earthquakes have been building for centuries – with effects worsened by modern apathy

photo CNN-IBN

photo CNN-IBN

Nepal’s devastating earthquake, with over 5,000 people reported dead so far, was a disaster waiting to happen.

This small and impoverished country of 28m people lies in a prime earthquake zone – international experts were in Kathmandu just over a week ago predicting an imminent disaster.

And it happened in and around a city with a population of over one million that is crammed with vulnerable old structures, many new buildings that have been inadequately designed and badly constructed, masses of shantytown slums, and narrow inaccessible alleyways. Beyond the city are many crippled villages. There are fears the death toll could reach 10,000

The story has been building up in Nepal for decades, confounding international aid agencies and others who have tried to tackle social, environmental and other challenges. Now the government is not equipped to handle the effects of the disaster.

Nepal quakeWhen I first visited the country 30 years ago, I wrote (in The Financial Times) that “deep-rooted corruption siphons off a large proportion of international aid and cripples the country’s economic growth and public administration”.

Members of the now-ousted royal family were heading the plunder, and one aid worker told me the leakages were so dire that his country would only provide equipment, not money. Since then Nepal, which is a buffer state between India and China, has been wracked by relentless political instability, a Maoist uprising and civil war.

Governments have not even been able to begin to tackle macro economic development, let alone the intractable problems that made the earthquake and its after-shocks so serious. The good news is the way that international help was quickly mobilised over the weekend. India led the way within hours of the quake, flying in supplies and support teams in an operation personally led by Narendra Modi, the prime minister who showed, perhaps for the first time since he was elected a year ago, his ability to swing a cumbersome government machine into immediate action.

 Nepal is prone to earthquakes because it is at the junction of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Himalayas were created when the plates collided millions of years ago, and the still-moving Indian plate pushes the mountains a few millimeters higher every year.- Washington Post

Nepal is at the junction of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates which collided millions of years ago – Washington Post

The earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, had been forecast to happen because it is 80 years since the last such disaster which demolished large areas of Kathmandu and killed over 17,000 people.

It is the result of what is known as the Indian tectonic plate moving northwards at the rate of 5cm a year into central Asia and the Eurasian plate. Originally this threw up the Himalayan mountain range, and the fault line has triggered a series of quakes, most recently in Kashmir in 2005 when over 70,000 people were killed in Pakistan and neighbouring countries.

Just a week ago, 50 earthquake scientists from around the world met in Kathmandu to discuss how the area would cope with such  a disaster. “Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen,” seismologist James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the Cambridge University, told the Daily Mail. “I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was and I thought at the time that the area was heading for trouble,’ said Jackson, lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, a group that tries to help Asian cities prepare for disasters.

There is of course extreme grief in Nepal, and across the world, for the loss of those who have died, and concern for those who have been injured or have not yet been found. Government ministers join in the expressions of sorrow and pledges to provide aid, but it often seems that life in this region is not valued highly. Little is done once the crisis has past, beyond slowly rebuilding people’s lives, their homes and places of work. nepal-quake-mapPublic services are allowed to decay, and there is scant concern for public safety.

Two years ago, there were some 6,000 deaths when devastating floods hit the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand adjacent to Nepal. The floods were caused by torrential rain but they were exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many settlements had been built next to the rivers in blatant violation of corruptly administered environmental laws – but little or nothing has been done in the past two years to improve the situation.

The Nepalese are sturdy strong people and they will rebuild their lives, haphazardly. But they have little opportunity to plan further than their immediate needs. The sort of action taken by, for example, Japan to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes is beyond what most can even dream about.

That then is the challenge for international aid agencies, and for Narendra Modi at the head of Nepal’s largest neighbour. From Afghanistan across to Bhutan and Bangladesh and down into India, a new approach is needed to handling natural disasters and, in particular, trying to ensure that buildings can withstand earthquakes. That is a huge challenge for governments, but in India it is just the sort of thing that Modi was elected to achieve, by making government work.

See Comments below for two examples – in Bangladesh and Orissa – of governments showing that it is possible for them to learn from crises.


  1. thank you Teresita for that story – another example of disaster triggering a new approach came in Orissa in October 2013, when fewer than 25 people died in a massive cyclone – the state and central governments had learned lessons from a cyclone in 1999 when 10,000 people were killed because of a lack of planning and effective administration.

    I wrote about it on this blog and also in my IMPLOSION book

  2. good article.

    But I have one surprising exception to the rule that when natural disasters occur in south Asia, you get a lot of expressions of sympathy, some immediate relief and rehab, and then…nothing.

    Bangladesh. Epic floods are a regular occurrence. We were there for the ones that took place in 1986 or 7. Most of the many thousands killed were squatters on “chors,” basically glorified sandbars, a couple of miles offshore. They didn’t want to leave their “squat property.”

    Another horrible flood in 1990. But by then, far fewer died on the “chors.” The government had put up towers where people could climb above the flood tide, and people used them. They kept working on prevention of death during catastrophes. Yes, they had aid funding but the government actually organized to make something happen.

    By the time Hurricane Katrina came along and devastated New Orleans in 2005, Bangladesh sent a donation to the relief effort. A TV broadcaster stuck a microphone in front of a Bangladesh professor on an exchange program somewhere in southern Louisiana, and asked how this compared with Bangladeshi floods. He looked a bit flustered, perhaps embarrassed to be on the air, but said “well, actually, we do this better.” He was right.

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