April 30, 2015
Geologists have long recognized the potential for a catastrophic earthquake in Nepal. After all, the Himalayas are icy, saw-toothed proof of the power of the region’s tectonic processes. The range is one of the fastest-growing mountain belts in the world, the result of roughly 50 million years of collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates.
But the true impact of last Saturday’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake goes beyond geology. The epicenter was less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the capitol of Kathmandu, a city of 700,000 with fragile infrastructure and inadequate building codes. These realities make an earthquake more than just an energy release in the Earth’s crust—this earthquake is a human tragedy, too, and a reason to take a good look at how policy might address similar hazards in the future.
So what went wrong?
Part of the challenge to relief efforts is simply geography: the steep terrain means some villages are still out of reach for rescue workers, and associated hazards like landslides and avalanches can block roads or clog up and divert rivers, increasing the risk of flood. These challenges may be unavoidable—but they are compounded by political shortcomings.
Nepal is small, underdeveloped, and still recovering from a decade-long civil war. Disaster preparedness has taken a back seat to more pressing matters, like the fact that Nepal still doesn’t have a constitution, or that many districts and villages haven’t had an election since 1998. There isn’t a political structure in place to handle emergency planning or operations.
Nepal’s infrastructure has also suffered from lack of government oversight. As much as 80 percent of new buildings in Nepal are constructed informally—that is, without help from engineers. Even existing building codes are not adequate to handle the kind of shaking the region experienced, and the government lacks the resources to fully implement and enforce codes. Two disaster-management organizations drafted the Earthquake Risk Management Action Plan in 1999 to address the problems, but the political situation prevented it from being adequately implemented.
So what can we do now?
First and foremost, we can contribute to emergency relief efforts (you can find a list of aid organizations here).
Moving forward, we can remember that our scientific knowledge can have direct, positive effects on the safety and success of communities. There was a wealth of information about the Himalayan thrust fault and the damage that an earthquake could do in the region—but it takes policy efforts like the Earthquake Risk Management Action Plan, coupled with financial resources, to put this information to use in saving lives. It will take support and diplomacy of the international community to help Nepal build the political infrastructure to deal with natural hazards in the future. It will take aid and investment in Nepal’s economy. It will take more work on the part of scientists to translate existing knowledge to policymakers and the public. The nitty-gritty details of building codes, emergency management and infrastructure are a vital extension of scientific expertise. Sometimes, policy is an applied science.