Nepal’s Earthquake: Learning the Lessons from the Past

Saturday saw the biggest earthquake in Nepal’s 80-year history. In less than a day, the death toll has more than doubled, now expected to be in the region of 2,500 (and rising). The 7.8 magnitude quake affected 5 countries from India to China and also triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest in the Himalayas. Experts knew about the imminent danger, so what has been done to pre-empt it?

The natural disaster hit on 25th April 2015 between the cities of Pakhora and Kathmandu. A magnitude 6.7 aftershock struck an hour later and up to 20 smaller aftershocks continued to jolt the region for hours. The quake also killed 34 in India, six in Tibet, two in Bangladesh, and two on the Nepal-China border.

(Since I began writing this post, the death toll increased by a few hundred. By the time you read it, it will be considerably more).

The 28 million Nepalese nation remains in disarray with over 5,900 having been reported injured. Overcrowding in hospitals led to beds and treatments on the streets. Makeshift motorbikes and small trucks have been employed by locals to rescue people from the wreckage. Nepal have been warned that aftershock quakes, fires or tsunamis are all a possibility – any of which can occur in the next few days, weeks or months.

What is perhaps more frightening is that the earthquake in Nepal was waiting to happen. We knew about it. Only a few weeks ago, Geohazards International, an organisation that alerts and prempts earthquakes around the world, published a report on the threat. In fact, just last week, earthquake specialists congregated in Kathmandu to discuss the imminent danger. Seismologist James Jackson from the University of Cambridge told the Associated Press: “It was sort of a nightmare waiting to happen… Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen.” Sarah Crowe, the crisis communications chief of Unicef, who has also worked in Nepal, said that it was a “tragedy waiting to happen”, noting that schoolchildren had already been supplied whistles in case they got trapped under rubble.

So why was nothing more really done? Whilst experts agree that the warning was there, the fragile situation within the country made humanitarian aid only a possibility. In any case, what exactly can be done with such information – is evacuation even possible? “Nepal has some of the world’s best people and initiatives for community-based seismic risk reduction and earthquake education. But the country has also suffered terrible conflicts, poor governance and heart-wrenching poverty, all of which created and perpetuated the vulnerability which has been devastatingly exposed during the shaking,” said Dr Ilan Kelman to the Guardian, of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, at University College London.

Gary Shaye of Save the Children, added, “There is not a lot of open space to accommodate people who get displaced. Even if we had all the plastic sheeting and temporary shelter, is this going to be adequate for the monsoon season.” With rain descending in Katmandu on Sunday, the monsoon season is expected to begin in June.

Let’s take a look at some of the deadliest earthquakes of the past decade:

Date Location Casualties Magnitude
25th April 2015 Kathmandu, Nepal 2,500 and counting… 7.9
11th March 2012 Japan tsunami 16,000 dead2,000 remain missing 9.0
12th January 2010 Port-au-Prince, Haiti 316,000 dead1.5 million homeless 7.0
12th May 2008 Sichuan, China 90,000 dead5 million homeless 7.9
27th February 2007 Chile 700 dead 8.8
8th October 2005 Northern Pakistan 80,000 dead 7.6
26th December 2004 Sumatra, Indonesia (South-East Asia) tsunami 230,000 dead 9.1

On average, one earthquake above a 7.0 magnitude occurs somewhere in the world each year.

Despite this, it seems like the international community has reacted much quicker and offered a lot more help, perhaps learning lessons from the past. The Nepalese government made an urgent appeal for foreign aid, with India sending medical equipment and relief teams on 13 military aircrafts almost immediately. David Cameron quickly pledged a helping hand, with the UK sending over disaster response and search-and-rescue specialists. The Department for International Development has pledged a £5 million package to the British Red Cross and other charities working in Nepal. Norway has offered a further 30 million krone ($3.9 million, €3.5 million), while other European countries said they would offer financial resources and personnel. Furthermore, the US embassy has declared $1 million in immediate assistance and a 70-strong team to arrive on Monday. The Australian Government will give $5 million in assistance through Australian and UN charities.

Christian Aid announced it had made an initial £50,000 available to help victims of the earthquake and added that it would launch an appeal. Pope Francis led prayers on Sunday for all those affected in Nepal and surrounding areas. Google said that it has initiated its Person Finder Tool that was used in the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and the tsunami in Japan in 2011. It allows people to find missing members or update their own condition online. Facebook has also allowed Nepalese users to update their status as O.K to inform family and friends.

While the scale of the disaster grows every hour, Nepal’s economy is heavily dependent upon tourists in the Himalayan region so it will put a big test on its strained finances. With technology, a natural disaster can be predicted. Even still, with added instability, a natural disaster is hard to pre-empt.


By @AHassanaliUK