NATURAL DISASTER How prepared are we?

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: May 2016

The recent earthquakes in the federal republic of Nepal should be seen as yet another reminder. How prepared are we if a similar fate befell us in India?

A major earthquake struck the western part of Nepal, barely two weeks after a devastating quake killed more than 7,000 people. According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake that hit the town of Namche Bazar, close to the Mount Everest region, had a magnitude of 7.4. On April 26, 2015, the earthquake that hit the country centred in the eastern part of Nepal and recorded a magnitude of 7.8. The latest tremor was felt as far away as New Delhi, the capital of India and Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh cite a report by the BBC.

Ever so often, the effects of a natural disaster are not solely dependent on the severity of the disaster but on how prepared the affected region is. This is the reason an earthquake in Japan and an earthquake in Nepal of similar strength will have differing consequences.

Moreover, the impact of a disaster is not just on immediate but long-term consequences. Some experts say it could take years to reconstruct the affected regions of Nepal considering the fact that the assistance required is more than the country’s GDP. Others are skeptical pointing out too the reasons for such disasters.

GeoHazards International, a non-profit organization whose focus is on lessening earthquake threats in developing countries points out that a person living in Kathmandu is nine times more likely to be killed than a person living in Islamabad and about 60 times more likely than a person living in Tokyo. This is because of the widespread and indiscriminate construction works that have been taking place in Nepal since the last major earthquake that hit the India-Nepal border in 1934.

Intriguingly, experts had warned of an impending earthquake in Nepal and the need to be prepared. Just a week before the quake, about 50 earthquake and social scientists from around the world had gathered in Kathmandu to deliberate on earthquake preparedness.

The recent Nepal earthquake disaster has once again underlined the necessity to take steps in India to avert similar calamities. Every Indian who has watched the after-effects of the disaster on television would have asked themselves the same question with a tinge of fear considering the country’s situation.

disaster-qSeismologists themselves are equally alarmed as the situation in India is far from ideal. “I cannot imagine the catastrophe if an earthquake of magnitude 6 hits Delhi,” laments Harsh K. Gupta, President of the International Union of Geodesy & Geophysics in a report appearing in India Today. The Indian capital is located in Zone 4 (the country is divided into five seismic zones). “The vast slums and unauthorised colonies, especially around the soft Yamuna floodplain, in which lakhs of people live, will be flattened like a house of cards. The Qutab Minar can probably survive an earthquake of the magnitude of 7.0, but beyond that I don’t think so,” he warns.

How many buildings have we constructed over the years, unscientifically, just as extensions and makeshift constructions to house millions of people in our cities? How many of our builders have given a thought about the occurrence of such a calamity? According to disaster management experts, in the past 25 years, more than 25,000 people perished in major earthquakes in India of which 95 percent of victims were killed due to a building collapse, say a report in the Times of India.

We cannot prevent natural disasters from happening, but we can mitigate their consequences by making our structures and buildings earthquake proof.

But it’s not just the builders that need to start caring about this. Perhaps the first step could be reforming civil engineering education.

According to the 2011 census, 84 percent of houses in India have brick masonry walls made of fired or unfired bricks and stones. Surprisingly, only three percent of undergraduate civil engineering and architecture curricula deal with these constituents. The curriculum is solely devoted to buildings with Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC).

“There is no doubt that the curriculum contents in undergraduate courses on masonry construction should be given more attention,” insists D K Paul, emeritus fellow at IIT Roorkee’s Earthquake Engineering Department and an expert on earthquake-resistant construction speaking to The Times of India.

No doubt this has to be changed keeping in mind the needs of the times. But even if the academic world begins to accept these facts, will our builders, who seek profit at any cost, agree to incorporate the relevant technologies?

There seems to be only one solution and that is by enforcing strict safety building codes. In areas that have been identified as earthquake prone, the government should ensure that buildings confirm to the required standards.

Sadly for us in India, it is a known fact that our systems work slowly and everything takes time. Unfortunately, natural calamities don’t wait!