Natural Disasters

After 7.9 shock

The earthquake that shook Nepal and northern India underscores the urgency to understand the seismicity of the Himalayas and to improve the design of buildings in the region

 

After 7.9 shock

THE DAY AFTER: Rescuers dug with whatever came in handy to find bodies in Nepal on April 26, 2015, after the earthquake devastated the heavily crowded Kathmandu

Nepal, flattened by the 7.9 magnitude earthquake, has stopped looking for the dead. As heavy machineries scoop out the ruins, the tiny Himalayan country awakes to an unbearable future. Millions of people have to be immediately sheltered and many areas have to be built afresh. The cost of rehabilitation is estimated at $5 billion or one-fourth of the country’s GDP. Aftershocks continue to traumatise the country already in distress. For those who survived, the transition to a normal life is going to be painfully long and difficult, given the country’s capacity to handle such a disaster.

Five days after the earthquake shook Nepal on April 25, Nima Lama, a resident of Chum village in Gorkha district, was still trying to get a letter from the authorities permitting a helicopter to carry rescue material to his village. The epicentre of the earthquke, Barpak village in Gorkha, is very close to Lama’s home. Lama was in Kathmandu when the earthquake struck. He rushed to his village with great difficulty. “It is almost impossible to reach there on foot as all roads to the village have collapsed,” he said over the phone. “My village is completely destroyed.” His family is safe, but without food or water. “Government officials are mainly active in accessible areas, and there is no coordination among them for rescue work,” he added.

Others in Nepal echo Lama’s concerns. “There is absolutely no coordination among government agencies, except the security forces. The government mechanism has been a total failure in this disaster,” says a doctor who does not wish to be named.

Over 280,000 houses were destroyed in Nepal, rendering at least half a million people homeless

At the time of going to press, the death toll was 7,765, while the number of injured was 15,911, according to the Nepal police. Most deaths have been recorded in Sindhupalchowk, Kathmandu and Nuwakot. The toll would have been much higher had it been a weekday—most school buildings in 11 districts collapsed.

Once a city of four million people, Kathmandu today wears a deserted look. People have left the capital city in large numbers, unsettled by aftershocks and fearing another big tremor. According to the National Seismology Centre (NSC), Kathmandu, Nepal continued to witness strong aftershocks for days after the first big jolt. “It was like tearing a bamboo; the first hit was very loud, then it went from west to east and the aftershocks are slowing down,” says Som Nath Sapkota, deputy director general of the Department of Mines and Geology, which runs NSC.

imageMany have flocked to their villages to check on their families. Santosh, who sells paan (betelnut leaf) on the streets of Kathmandu, is under pressure from his parents to go back to his village in Dhanusa district, as they do not want to see their only son dead. “They have heard that there will be an outbreak of diseases in the city, so they have been calling me home,” he says.

The base camp at Mount Everest was another site of disaster as the quake triggered an avalanche, burying 19 people in the snow and injuring many. The avalanche also killed at least 67 mountaineers who were trekking at the time of the earthquake.

The United Nations has made an urgent appeal to member states to donate US $415 million to provide relief material—tents, water, blankets and medicines—to at least half a million people who have been living in the open since April 25. Most buildings have crumbled to dust.

Rocky foundation

Till May 7, at least 288,798 houses were completely destroyed, while 254,112 houses were partially damaged across the country, according to the National Emergency Operations Centre under the Nepal government’s Ministry of Home Affairs. More than 10,700 government buildings have collapsed.

Lax building regulations and safety standards have been blamed for the high number of deaths. Sushil Kafle, a resident of Dhumbarahi apartments in Kathmandu, one of the few apartments that survived the quake, says, “Ours were among the first apartments to be built in the city so there was a lot of monitoring by the municipal corporation. But the condition of newly constructed high-rise buildings is not very good as they were never checked.” Sirjna K C, a resident of Chandol, explains how difficult it is to build a quake-resistant home in Nepal. “To ensure that safety standards were followed in my home, I had to bribe municipal officials to come to inspect my house,” she says.

Historical monuments were also damaged. Kathmandu Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, collapsed, as did the nine-storey Dharahara Tower, built in 1832. Many temples, including the 17th century Pashupatinath Temple, another World Heritage Site, have been affected.

Earthquake-prone Himalayas

The “Gorkha earthquake”, as termed by seismologists, has once again triggered a debate among scientists on the vulnerability of the Himalayas to earthquakes. “The Himalayan range stretches 2,500 km from Afghanistan to Myanmar. There is a regular movement of the fault line that runs along Nepal’s southern border, where the Indian tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate 40-50 million years ago,” Sapkota explains.

An earthquake of a powerful magnitude was imminent in the highly seismic Himalayan zone, where Nepal is situated. But do we know enough about the geology of the youngest mountain range? Research has been on to better understand the seismicity of the Himalayas. Can such research help us design technology to predict earthquakes and prevent a Nepal-like disaster?

Hydropower plants affected
 
The EARTHQUAKE of April 25 and a series of aftershocks have damaged about 14 hydropower plants across Nepal, resulting in a loss of 150 megawatt (MW) of electricity. Sher Singh Bhat, deputy managing director, Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), said in a press briefing in Kathmandu that the Sunkoshi hydropower plant has suffered serious damage—its 3-km canal has multiple leakages. The power plant had already suffered damage during a landslide last year. "It can start operation only after three-four months," Bhat added.

Other hydropower plants have also been damaged and will require maintenance. NEA officials hope to restore Trishuli and Devighat power plants within a week. The challenge, they say, is shortage of labourers.

None of the ongoing projects, except Upper Trishuli 3A, has suffered physical damage. "About 3 km access road of this project has been washed away by landslides triggered by the quake," Bhat says. Others that suffered damages include Kulekhani and Upper Bhotekoshi hydropower plants.

 

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