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Nepal: Preparing for an earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley

21 May 2013


Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu - the city and surrounding valley - sits on a fault line that experts believe may soon slip, triggering a potentially catastrophic earthquake. Photo: Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium/IRIN
In Nepal, disaster preparedness means imagining the world’s next mega disaster.

In 1934, the fault line than runs beneath the Kathmandu valley slipped. The magnitude 8.4 earthquake that followed destroyed more than 80,000 buildings and claimed 8,500 lives. It was the last earthquake to shake the city of Kathmandu and surrounding valley. Almost 80 years later, UN agencies and the government are determined to be better prepared for the next one.

At a meeting held in April in the Himalayan State, Nepalese and international disaster officials gathered to imagine once again the humanitarian consequences of another earthquake, and to consider the response.

Kathmandu today is an entirely different city from the one almost levelled in 1934. It is now a densely populated home to almost 2.5 million people, many living and working in buildings that will not withstand a significant seismic event. An earthquake, experts say, could displace more than 1.8 million people, kill over 100,000 and injure a further 300,000. Sixty percent of buildings could be destroyed.

Finding shelter for 1.8 million people

Planning for an earthquake has gone beyond simply projecting its potential humanitarian consequences. The government and the UN are already preparing their response.

Providing shelter for the estimated 1.8 million people displaced would demand a tremendous amount of open space, so the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Home Affairs have mapped all public spaces in and around Kathmandu that could be used for temporary shelters. They have created a list that includes spaces large enough for 250,000 people (the National Agricultural Research Centre), down to areas that could shelter less than 1,000 (such as Nasamana square in the town of Bhaktapur on Kathmandu’s eastern outskirts).

“Each and every open space, no matter how large or small, will be invaluable after a major earthquake. They will be our portals into delivering aid in a chaotic, anarchic environment,” said Andrew Martin, the Head of OCHA in Nepal. “If our first step is to organise efficient, well-structured camps, then the shelter, food and water we need to deliver will have a better chance to reach its intended targets.”

Shelter, food and water

IOM and OCHA, along with the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) are also planning how they will provide basic humanitarian services, such as food, clean water, sanitation and emergency health, in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Arinita Maskey, a UNICEF expert on water, sanitation and hygiene, warned that considerations about space for survivors, and the services they will need, must be addressed at the same time.

“The density of the camps may pose significant challenges for the provision of water, sanitation, and hygiene services, as well as food distribution and security,” she explained.

Access will be difficult

Despite the amount of planning that has been done, humanitarian agencies know that any response to an earthquake will be incredibly difficult. WFP, the agency that is responsible for coordinating logistics during disasters, expects that an earthquake would likely render all roads in and out of the Kathmandu Valley impassable, as well as damaging the airport.

WFP’s Amir Ismail, who is the head of the logistics cluster in Nepal, says that the humanitarian community’s ability to get relief items into the valley under this scenario will be extremely limited. He says that in the days immediately following an earthquake, agencies would be forced to rely on helicopters, an approach that would be both costly and inadequate.

“If the airport is closed and all the access roads are impassable then we will (only be able to bring in) enough food to feed 100,000 people for a week,” said Mr Ismail. “Even if the airport remains open then initially supplies will be available for only one tenth of the estimated displaced population."

The need for greater investment in disaster preparedness and disaster proof urban planning will be a major focus of the Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction that is being held in Geneva this week (19-23 May). This event will see governments, the UN, the wider humanitarian and development communities and the private sector continue to explore the global framework for reducing disaster risk. It comes on the heels of a new report from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) that warned that direct losses from disasters have been underestimated by at least 50 per cent, and have cost the global economy in the range of $2.5 trillion since the start of this century alone.