Disaster and recovery: The unexpected shall come to be expected

Residents take out furniture from a damaged house in Bhaktapur, Nepal. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Vincent T Gawronski, Birmingham-Southern College

The full extent of the earthquake disaster in Nepal is still being calculated. With so many remote villages, it would be no surprise to see the death toll rise to 10,000 people. Nearly 8 million people are likely to be directly affected, and a long-term, complex humanitarian crisis looms large. The potential for civil unrest and violence is very real.

The media has been focusing on the heart-wrenching human interest, hero-tragedy stories for several days, but what must be emphasized is that this disaster was anticipated.

More importantly, we now have the tools and building technologies to mitigate the impact of even major earthquakes.

What is needed is what the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has been advocating: an international commitment to disaster risk reduction.

Nepal is in one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world and earthquakes much more powerful than a 7.8 magnitude event will eventually occur. This due to the same forces that have produced the Himalayas, which have been created by the pressure of the India subcontinent slowly wedging itself under Tibet and Nepal. These geological stresses will continue to generate frequent earthquakes in the region. The region is also prone to floods, landslides, and droughts.

A disaster predicted

Experts have assessed the hazards and vulnerabilities and knew with a high degree of confidence what would happen if a large magnitude earthquake struck the Kathmandu Valley. A 2012 UNISDR news article, “Nepal’s tragedy in waiting,” was alarming:

“Conservative estimates are that the next big earthquake could result in 100,000 dead, 200,000 injured and one to two million people displaced in the fabled Kathmandu Valley where memories live on of the 1934 earthquake which took more than 8,000 lives.”

Risk assessments were conducted, recommendations made, and some buildings seismically retrofitted, and yet three years later there have been so many deaths. Why?

The blame lies primarily on shoddy construction practices such as un-reinforced cinder block construction and failing to adequately secure roofs to support beams and walls and to a solid foundation, as well as the stock of aging, dilapidated structures.

Nepal’s unstable political situation also hampered disaster risk reduction and preparedness efforts. Despite the country’s popularity as a tourist destination, Nepal’s government is dysfunctional and corrupt. The country has been plagued by political violence and currently there is no constitution.

The World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators for Nepal look eerily similar to those of Haiti;and the visual representation of Nepal’s state capacity in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index visual indicates only slightly more capacity than Haiti.

Retrofitted buildings were more secure – why weren’t there more of them?

Yet advanced building practices could have made a difference: the National Museum of Nepal was recently retrofitted, and it is still standing – virtually undamaged. The United Nations Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium was established in 2012 to highlight what could be done, but its prescriptions have been plagued with implementation challenges.

Doing the most sensible thing is not always easy. Limited resources are always a problem. Competing agendas such as those between historical preservationists and earthquake safety engineers, and clashes between forces of tradition or modernity and those influenced by superstition or science can impede disaster risk reduction efforts. If disasters are seen as “Acts of God,” for example, there tends to be less commitment to prevention, mitigation, and preparedness and less blame falls on political leadership for not anticipating the event.

Welcome to the new normal, especially in the developing world. Here is the recipe for disaster: Population growth and demographic pressures, rapid and unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation, and building codes and zoning regulations that are insufficient, and nonexistent or unenforced, coupled with weak institutions and rampant corruption.

Haiti and Chile reveal how disasters can be mitigated

A myriad of factors contribute to earthquake damage, but unsafe building practices can explain why in 2010 so many more people died in Haiti than in Chile in earthquakes that year. The Haiti earthquake (magnitude 7.0) was was potentially less catastrophic compared to the Chile earthquake (magnitude 8.8). Chile, however, is one of the least corrupt and best governed countries in the Americas, and cultivates a disaster risk reduction culture. Building codes and zoning rules are mostly enforced. The toll in Chile was 525 dead, 25 missing, while the estimates of the death toll in Haiti ranged from 230,000 to 316,000. Chile as able to bounce back. Five years later, Haiti is just as vulnerable, if not more. Like Haiti, it will be difficult for Nepal to bounce back at all.

In poor communities, especially in the developing world, it’s also not unusual for people to erect their own structures with little or no engineering supervision or expertise. Poorly constructed buildings tend to concentrate in densely populated cities, and high population density simply translates into more deaths.

When disasters, hazards, vulnerabilities and risks are known to occur with some frequency, governments have a human rights obligation to minimize the loss of life. The latest Nepal earthquake disaster was inevitable given the lack of resources and political will needed to invest in long-term disaster risk reduction.

Poor, vulnerable countries cannot go it alone. They need development assistance to increase community resilience. International organizations must take the lead in ensuring building codes and standards are met. Massive retrofitting campaigns need to receive United Nations and World Bank funding. Retrofitting, which the UNISDR defines as: >“Reinforcement or upgrading of existing structures to become more resistant and resilient to the damaging effects of hazards,” is much less expensive than the costs associated with a large-scale hazard event.

We can expect to see more deadly disasters in the 21st century, especially in the developing world. Millions more people – poor, already vulnerable people – will be more exposed to natural hazards as the population increases from nearly 7.3 billion to more than 9.5 billion by 2050. A catastrophic earthquake disaster with over a million deaths is not science fiction. It is a real possibility. Just look at Roger Musson’s The Million Death Quake.

The frequency of earthquakes has not changed over the past few million years, but now millions of people live in vulnerable situations. The news story of thousands of people killed in a remote and “exotic” place like Nepal will not resonate for long in the United States, but it should.

Of course, disaster vulnerability is not limited to the developing world. Due to its size and geophysical characteristics, the United States is actually a very disaster-prone country, with floods, wildfires, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes and even an occasional volcanic event. Moreover, the United States ranks 20th on the 2015 Climate Risk Index.

According to a recent joint report of the US Geological Service, California Geological Survey and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) more than 143 million people in 48 states across the United States are at risk from earthquakes,

As many as 28 million people are likely to experience strong tremors in their lifetime, with estimated annual building losses at $4.5 billion. A catastrophic earthquake in the United States is on the horizon.

The unexpected must come to be expected. Much-needed humanitarian assistance must transition into long-term development efforts. Simply put, instilling a culture of disaster risk reduction, investing in hazard mitigation, building as best as we can, and retrofitting what remains, will save lives.

The Conversation

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