Learning From Calamity


Nepal is no stranger to earthquakes. Because the country sits above major tectonic fault lines, earthquakes have been a recurring natural hazard. Since the devastating 2015 Gorkha earthquake, we have experienced quite a number of them, some aftershocks, others new ones. On November 9, 2022, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake that hit Doti district killed six people and lay waste to properties worth millions of rupees. On October 3 this year, a 5.3 magnitude earthquake jolted Bajhang district, killing one person and damaging 135 houses. And on November 4, Jajarkot and West Rukum districts were violently shaken by an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4, which left 157 people dead, hundreds injured and some 8,000 houses damaged or destroyed. The four districts lie in the Sudurpaschim and Karnali provinces, in the western region of the country. Experts have long warned that the region has seen no major quake in the last 500 years or so, meaning that time may be ripe for a mega earthquake to strike the region any time.

 And the more time it takes, the more powerful it becomes due to energy accumulation. They have also warned that these relatively smaller quakes are the harbinger of a big one. The question we should be asking is this: How come the moderately strong Jajarkot earthquake became so deadly? "Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do," goes the saying. The 2015 earthquake was supposed to galvanise us to build earthquake-resistant houses, particularly in the earthquake-prone region. But the devastation from the recent earthquakes unequivocally shows that hasn't been the case. Had we learned our lessons from the past earthquakes, the scale of loss and damage could have been mitigated.  According to the police data, 78 of the 157 people killed in the quake on the night of November 3 were children. Of the deceased children, 50 died in Jajarkot and 28 in Rukum West.  

A 2022 study found that many of the 'earthquake-resistant' buildings in Bajhang were among the ones to be severely damaged by the October 3 earthquake. Clearly, people there were cutting corners to evade the government-mandated guidelines for constructing buildings. Strictly enforcing the guidelines in their fullest extent is paramount. If search and rescue effort has come to an end, the the government should go ahead with the rehabilitation along with relief aid. Many of the injured are still having to spend their cold winter nights in the open, or in makeshift shelters. The government's announcement to make the treatment of the injured free shows it is committed to saving lives of the people. It must make good on its promise to promptly provide Rs. 200,000 in relief to each quake victim family. But the delay can be costly. Paucity of care in the aftermath can make even the healthy people fall sick.  Concrete works must be done to keep the most vulnerable -- women and children – safe. 

Standing with us in our relief effort, neighbours, friendly nations and international community have provided cash and kind in relief such as tents and tarpaulin sheets, blankets and sleeping bags as well as essential medicines and medical equipment like portable ventilators. And further consignments of the relief material are expected to arrive in the coming days. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Earthquakes strike without warning. Although we cannot do anything about it, we can be prepared to mitigate loss and damage from their impacts. We mustn't let this crisis go to waste and work to better prepare ourselves for the future. 

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