Print Edition - 2015-05-23  |  On Saturday

Learning from the Great Quake

  • Government officials and experts knew that Nepal would be struck by a big earthquake sooner rather than later. Yet, they allowed the construction of buildings that did not follow strict building-code requirements. It’s time that we changed this culture of
- PRAGATI SHAHI
Learning from the Great Quake

May 22, 2015-

The April 25 earthquake, which took thousands of lives and destroyed thousands of houses, along with wrecking major infrastructure works in various parts of the country, was inevitable and long overdue. The Himalayan region is one of the most seismically active places on earth, formed by the collision of the Indian and the Eurasian techtonic plates, with the Indian plate underthrusting the Eurasian one. But unfortunately, despite knowing this all too well, nobody had taken any sound measures to prepare the country for the catastrophe.

Let alone the rural areas, even the Capital, Kathmandu, was ill-prepared when it came to dealing with the anticipated disaster. Although not as many people died in the Valley, as compared to the worst-hit districts like Sindhupalchok, Dolakha and Nuwakot, the damage it did to buildings and infrastructure in the Valley has been quite astounding.  

Over the last decade, the Valley had seen a major construction boom, with private and commercial buildings and highrises being constructed at a rapid, unprecedented pace.  But most of these construction activities were carried out with gross disregard for the building code and other safety measures put in place by the government. In fact, the government had prepared the National Building Code, a blueprint to ensure the structural safety of buildings in the country, in 1994, and had even made it mandatory for all builders to get prior permission from the authorities. Unfortunately, the government’s mandate was not enough to swing the public attitude towards safer construction practises.

The result—as per the data compiled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, a government body which is also responsible for overseeing disaster preparedness and management in the country—is that over 100,000 housing structures inside the Capital were severely damaged during the Great Earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks. Similarly, many housing structures that remain standing are either uninhabitable or in need of repair. “While the authorities were unable to enforce laws designed to withstand earthquakes, the people took this laxity as an opportunity to construct houses without following the proper guidelines,” says Sunil Babu Shrestha, an urban planner.

One of the reasons the people as well as the authorities had such a cavalier approach to earthquake preparedness was that earthquakes were never seen as impending disasters. “A majority of the people living inside the city had no idea as to the extent of the devastation an earthquake could cause in their lives and to their properties,” says Shrestha. “That lack of foresight about an impending disaster allowed the people to go on a construction binge, without regard to the protocols and the measures to be followed.”

But a more serious fault on the part of the people and the authorities seems to have been the tacit acceptance to not accept the government building code.  “If the houses in the Valley had been built in compliance with the building code and by following the existing monitoring process, chances are fewer people would have died and the structures would have sustained less damage,” says

Bhusan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor with UN-Habitat, Nepal. That disregard for safety protocols speaks volumes about how the country lapsed into complacency even as government officials and experts knew that we were due for a big one. Japan, for example, one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world—given that it lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire—is also one of the strictest enforcers of building codes. Since it adopted them in 1950, the country has modified and tightened these codes thrice, each time within three years of a major quake.

“The problem of not enforcing building codes was also compounded by the lack of skilled manpower who could inspect and oversee the construction projects in the Valley,” says Shrestha. While it is estimated that around 1,500 buildings are constructed annually in Kathmandu, the Department of Urban Development as well as the local bodies face a serious shortfall of people who can make the rounds of the construction sites to inspect wheather or not they are following the government guidelines.

“Because the recent earthquakes have wrought so much devastation in the country, we should view it as an opportunity to revisit our housing safety measures to deal with future disasters,” says Tuladhar. “Buildings should be designed such that they don’t imperil the lives of the occupants. Public places and institutions like schools and hospitals should be built using the latest quake-resistant technology. And roads, bridges, electrical grids, digital transmission networks and power plants must be made to withstand major shocks. The Great Quake has been a tragedy but it also provides an opportunity to finally get things right.”

Published: 23-05-2015 09:14

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