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The two devastating earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks that struck Nepal in the last month have left over 8,000 people dead and an estimated 8.1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Ten days after the first earthquake, Nepal’s government asked rescue teams to conclude their operations as the likelihood of finding survivors dwindled.

The focus now is on the rehabilitation of the thousands of people left homeless, both in Kathmandu and rural areas where many villages have been flattened. Nepal’s Minister of Commerce and Supplies estimates the economic cost of reconstruction will exceed the national annual budget and has set the country’s economy back a decade.

Preparing better for disasters could have reduced the damage significantly.

Earthquakes are a more common phenomenon in South Asia – as this video below shows –  but an earthquake of such a high magnitude is rare.  While geologists can anticipate regions where quakes may occur, it is not possible to predict when they are going to occur. Nepal and other countries in the Himalayan region are particularly prone to earthquakes.

The Himalayan region is also susceptible to other natural disasters such as landslides and flash floods due to its fragile mountainous terrain. Nepal is ranked fourth out of 200 countries most vulnerable to climate change, a known threat multiplier. Add to this the region’s high population density –and we have an urgent need for better disaster response and preparedness measures in the region.

The ways to reduce earthquake damage are well known – ensuring compliance of building codes, schools safety drills and setting up open safe zones for evacuation for example. But South Asian countries have not implemented these solutions on a large scale. Countries like Japan and New Zealand have shown leadership in earthquake preparedness and have considerably minimised damage as a result.

Grassroots action

Experts say the damage in Kathmandu was not as severe as expected – thanks to the efforts of organisations such as the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET) – which have been working hard to retrofit schools and hospitals and increase awareness by conducting evacuation drills.

Professor Kimiro Meguro, director of the International Centre for Urban Safety Engineering at the University of Tokyo, has also recognised the achievements of NSET’s school safety programme. A survey carried out shortly after the first earthquake showed how schools and mud mortar houses which had been retrofitted had suffered no or minimal damage, he said.

Experts have warned that India’s capital New Delhi – which sits on the same fault line as Nepal – would be devastated by a high magnitude earthquake, as the city’s poorly designed infrastructure would collapse, causing large-scale human and economic losses.

This brutal earthquake is a sharp reminder countries in high seismic risk zones need to adopt precautionary measures.  Knowledge of how to build earthquake resilient infrastructure is not enough, implementation is key.

Is a lack of resources a valid excuse for not implementing solutions?  Are there any effective mechanisms to enforce for standards? How can awareness of how to mitigate risks be raised among communities in remote areas? These are the lines of thought that need to be examined in India and Nepal in the aftermath of two high intensity earthquakes.

Amod Mani Dixit from NSET an interview says that cost is not the major constraint – it’s more expensive to rebuild damaged buildings than to meet building codes the first time round, he points out. The focus should thus be on training people how to construct stronger buildings whilst looking at price constraints.

UNDP is advocating for such measures in Nepal as well as directing banks and financial institutions to ensure construction complies with building codes prior to investment.

There are new low-cost solutions which can be used in the context of resource and technological constraints.

For example, using old tyres can increase the resistance of buildings in an earthquake. Hemanta Hazarika, an Indian civil engineering professor who has pioneered this technique in Japan, told the Press Trust of India that his “techniques can preserve the environment, mitigate disaster and reduce cost.”

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