The primary responsibility for safe houses is with individuals

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan on March 11 and the resulting tsunami has led to the death of at least 13,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. This has understandably caused anxiety among other quake-prone countries, Nepal being one of the most vulnerable in Asia and Kathmandu, according to one ranking, the most vulnerable city in the world. Recent tremors in the Indo-Nepal border region have also heightened concern about the next big one, which seismologists believe is long overdue. Amy Sellmyer and Danielle Preiss spoke to the Executive Director of the National Society of Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), the country’s foremost institution working on earthquake risk management, Amod Mani Dixit, about regional implications of the Japan quake, the state of Nepal’s preparedness and what common people can do to save lives.

Has the Japan earthquake resulted in pressure shifts along fault lines that could make an earthquake more likely here?

No. Japan sits astride the boundary of several plates collectively known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. Our plate boundary system—which extends from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas down the Burmese arc to Sumatra and then splits New Zealand in half—is different. But even if they were the same, earthquake events are not necessarily related. We can’t assume the Sumatran earthquake triggered the Christchurch earthquake, nor that the Christchurch earthquake or the Sendai earthquake could trigger an earthquake in Nepal. Their relationship is remote.

But within one fault segment, there is a connection—like the 7.1 aftershock in Japan. What happens is, in a particular region, stress can accumulate along a stress line of 300-400 kilometres. When there is a large seismological event, there can be other parts along the fault that remain locked but which could later turn into aftershocks when pressure is released.

In the last week, there have been three earthquakes in the subcontinent. Are frequent events along the same stress line a forewarning or indicator of a larger event?

They could be foreshocks. But what happened in the last week could also be the main event. Unfortunately, you can’t determine this until you see the whole series. But we must be cautious. We are concerned about a mega event to the west of Kathmandu. The stress has been accumulating and it is more than what is required to trigger a large event. So if there is a 5.0 tremor, be cautious—your emergency kit should be ready and you should have a set personal response plan. Any tremor could be a foreshock, especially in this region.

According to international risk assessment agencies, Nepal is still grossly underprepared for a major earthquake. What is the reason for this?

When you look at what kills, 80 percent of the risk comes from bad buildings. But no one wants to retrofit to comply with building codes. It’s much more lucrative to demolish a building and hand it over to a contractor to rebuild it—never mind if they don’t know about earthquake-resistant construction. This is not taught in our universities, not even in premier Indian engineering institutions up to the Bachelor’s level. This is a big problem.

The education system is responding to the market. Instead of learning how to design the types of buildings we have in Nepal, Nepali engineering students would rather design a 50-story building in Dubai or a magnificent structure in Malaysia or California—that knowledge lands them international jobs. Not a single institution is teaching how to build these typical two-story, brick, mud-mortar houses.

Without properly trained engineers, what hope do we have for construction of safe buildings?

Actually, 93 percent of all the buildings in Nepal are constructed by masons with no engineering input. We are more interested in training the masses; in the last 10 years we’ve trained about 5,000 masons. All the improvements in building construction in Kathmandu are not because of engineers, but because of masons. Some of them may even be illiterate, but they know how to build safer buildings.

The government is working, but the prime motivation is money. They still award consultancies to the lowest bidder, not those most concerned with safety. Contractors have similar motivations. And there is no system to control the quality and process of their work. On top of that, there is no system of accountability. This risk we are facing doesn’t fit anywhere into the political process. It is not a priority.

If most of the risk is in the buildings, what does awareness really do for people who can’t control the buildings?

The primary responsibility for safe houses remains with the individual. Forget about the building permit process, that is just a control mechanism that comes from the top. Unless the house owner wants to make his home earthquake resistance, no one can compel him.

There still seems to be a gap in knowledge and concrete plans at the individual level, especially for those in vulnerable households.

Every person must try to reduce existing vulnerabilities and prepare themselves to survive. Even in vulnerable buildings, you must find out where the safest places are. Because of the asymmetry of buildings, during a seismic event they rotate. When it rotates, the farther away from the centre of the building, the larger the movement. This means the outer walls fall down earlier than inner walls. The chances of surviving are higher towards the centre of the house. If you are on an upper floor, do not run to the stairs. They are usually not tied to the building’s foundational structure and are the first to go. This is usually where the most bodies are found.

Is it a good idea to run outside?

Unless you are located near the exit on the ground floor and have a yard outside, do not try to leave the building. If it’s a big one, say 7.5 magnitude or above, you can’t even take more than five steps. You have to train yourself on how to reach the safest place you can in those five steps. When the trembler stops, make sure the staircase is okay, then you have to go out. Then switch off the electricity line. These do’s and don’ts need to be known. That’s how you save yourself.

Now the question is how to save your wife, or your children, say if they are being crushed by fallen slab. Unlike in Japan, rescuers here may come only after 10 days, if they come at all. Living here, you must know how to use a wedge to lift a heavy object and a chisel to pry open the door. Once you go out, you shouldn’t go back inside. It is a good idea to put together a small kit to keep outside the door with tools. These are the things that save people.

It doesn’t matter if the minister demands or not, anyone can prepare a household kit—you decide for yourself. That’s what we are preaching. It isn’t required for a minister to sign a law or the mayor to enforce a code—these things can still be done.

source: The Kathmandu Post(2011),"The primary responsibility for safe houses is with individuals", The Kathmandu Post, 11 april 2o11

Photo: The Kathmandu Post