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May 1, 2015

Earthquakes: Prepare and survive

Opinion

May 1, 2015

It is impossible not to be moved by the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Nepal and adjoining regions as a result of the April 25 earthquake of magnitude 7.9. The death toll has already crossed 5,000. The entire world, India in particular, must do all it can to help with rescue and relief.
The disaster is a grim reminder of how vulnerable large parts of South Asia are to earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, flash-floods and landslides. It also shows how the region’s governments fail to mitigate their effects on the plea that some of these events cannot be predicted.
The plea is laughable. Of course, nobody can forecast an earthquake to the month or even year, but earth scientists know enough about region-specific seismic hazards to be able to say that an earthquake of high or medium magnitude is likely within a few decades. This furnishes an adequate basis to recognise the risks and take measures of disaster preparedness, mitigation and management.
It’s precisely because governments fail to do this that natural disasters become social catastrophes. Earthquakes are natural only in their causation. Their effects are socially determined and transmitted through arrangements which are created by societies/governments. Consider the following.
* The US and Western Europe are earthquake-prone. Yet, quakes killing more than 10,000 people haven’t occurred there for a century. They have only occurred in Third World countries, the exception being extremely vulnerable Japan.
* In 2010, a magnitude-7 earthquake killed 300,000 people in Haiti, history’s highest estimated earthquake toll. That year, a magnitude-8.8 earthquake occurred in Chile, which released 500 times greater energy, but killed 525 people.
* Natural disasters kill 63 people in Japan on average. In Peru the average is 2,900. In Hurricane Elena in the US (1985), only five people died. But when a cyclone slammed Bangladesh in 1991, half a million perished.
* Around the same time as the

1993 Latur (India) earthquake, California was hit by a quake 50 times more powerful. Three persons died in California; 8,000 people perished in Latur.
Such First World-Third World differences are primarily determined by social factors. This is the first lesson about disasters. As has been wisely said, earthquakes don’t kill; falling buildings do.
A second lesson is that disaster impacts aren’t class-neutral. Rather, disasters pick on the poor who are more vulnerable than the privileged. The poor live in congested and unsafe conditions, or in remote, badly-connected areas. More than a third of people who live in Nepal’s hills are four hours away from a tarred road; the headquarters of 15 of Nepal’s 75 districts have no road connections.
Typically, the rescue and relief infrastructure in developing countries is hopelessly inadequate — for instance, in Nepal, hardly any earthmovers were available to clear roadblocks or cranes to rescue people. Emergency relief provision — especially of necessities such as shelter, food, water and medicines — is appallingly bad.
A third lesson is that governance has great bearing on coping with natural disasters. If there’s transparency in official decision-making, the toll tends to be low. This is the case where governments are responsive, and where early warnings are sounded, and accurate information disseminated about rescue and relief.
This doesn’t happen in most Third World societies. Many are hierarchical; their rulers feel no obligation towards citizens. This situation is changing somewhat, but not nearly enough. Human life continues to be wantonly lost.
A fourth lesson is that many Third World societies are severely under-regulated for safety. Most have no residential and commercial zoning laws or sound building codes. Or, regulations are routinely violated. This is true of Kathmandu, which has evolved into ‘a densely built-up urban sprawl’. Most buildings don’t comply with the 1994 National Building Code.
This applies to other South Asian cities too. An estimated 80 percent of buildings in Indian cities aren’t earthquake-resistant, although it doesn’t cost a fortune to build or retrofit them to be so. Most municipalities don’t even insist on approval of new construction by structural engineers.
These lapses are unforgiveable: much of South Asia lies in a seismically active area, with large ‘severe-intensity’ zones. This is partly the result of a geological phenomenon in which giant land-masses crashed into each other more than 25 million years ago.
Since then, the Indian and Tibetan tectonic plates have been moving closer to each other by 20 millimetres a year along the 2,400-km Himalayan belt, creating enormous stresses that can only be periodically released through earthquakes.
Great earthquakes (magnitude greater than 8) have frequently occurred in the Himalayas, e.g. 1803, 1833, 1897, 1905 (Kangra), 1934 (Nepal-Bihar), and 1950 (Assam-Tibet). The magnitude-7.6 Muzaffarabad quake of 2005, while less severe, was part of the same phenomenon.
In addition to the Himalayan faults, our region includes major faults in Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra plains, the Rann of Kutch, peninsular India and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India alone has 66 faults. The areas most at risk are Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, North Bihar and Kutch.
As a peer-reviewed paper in Science (2001) argued, “about 50 million people are at risk from great Himalayan earthquakes…” The capitals of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan, and many other cities with more than a million people are “vulnerable”. Areas where stresses weren’t released recently are especially vulnerable.
Our governments should have done their best in earthquake planning, including making construction seismicity-resistant, and launching disaster management and public education programmes, while strengthening seismic monitoring. But they seem to have learnt little from the recent Uttarkashi (1991), Chamoli (1998), Bhuj (2001) and Muzaffarabad (2005) quakes.
Worse, the Indian, Chinese and Nepali governments have rushed headlong into hydroelectricity projects in the most vulnerable parts of the Himalayas. Even more deplorably, India went ahead with the Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi (a tributary of the Ganga) in Uttarakhand, bang in the 600-km Central Himalayan Seismic Gap. No major earthquake has occurred there for 500 years, and therefore a Big One is due anytime.
Among those who publicly warned of this hazard was Vinod Gaur, a distinguished geophysicist and a co-author (with Roger Bilham and Peter Molnar of University of Colorado) of the Science paper mentioned above. The government completed the dam but under-designed it for the likely peak ground acceleration for a maximum credible earthquake.
If the dam is ruptured by an earthquake, the consequences for the millions of people who live downstream can only be catastrophic.
Equally irresponsibly, the government ignored an article by Gaur and Bilham in Current Science, which argued that the Jaitapur nuclear power project in Maharashtra was declared seismically safe without considering its potential seismic vulnerabilities. India’s West coast, says Gaur, is well-recognised as probably “laced with ancient faultlines buried under sediments and waiting to spring back like a piano accordion...”
The absence of seismicity in Jaitapur in the past century was wrongly interpreted to infer that no seismicity would occur in the future — although the nearby Koyna and Latur regions experienced major earthquakes (magnitude 6+). The paper should have been scientifically debated, but Indian nuclear power lobbyists ridiculed it and prevented Bilham from entering India in 2012!
Such attitudes to dissenting scientists speak of an authoritarian mindset — and worse, contempt for public safety in the face of disasters.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.
Email: [email protected]