Nepal earthquake: Notes from the ground

Nepal earthquake: Notes from the ground
A woman making her way over the ruins of her house in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Before this one, the last major earthquake to hit Kathmandu was in 1934.

Earlier this month, we joined around 50 natural and social scientists from China, France, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Singapore and the United Kingdom in Kathmandu to discuss earthquake preparedness across the Asian continental interior as part of the Earthquakes without Frontiers research project. NSET-Nepal, the National Society for Earthquake Technology, a local NGO, hosted our event.

The last major earthquake to hit Kathmandu was in 1934, when around 10,000 people died. We knew that the next event could happen the following week, or not in our lifetimes; it is impossible to predict earthquakes, however much governments would like to imagine that you can.

The timing of our meeting was not prescience; it was coincidence.

Many earthquake scientists go to bed with their shoes beside their beds, away from furniture that might topple over, with windows curtained, and a bottle of water and head torch close to hand.

They do this whenever they are in the field, even though they will probably never experience an earthquake. Others of us are more cavalier.

On April 11, a fortnight before the earthquake, NSET's local experts took us on a guided "earthquake walk" through Kathmandu's old town of tiny streets and courtyards, where houses have been divided vertically on inheritance, and additional stories added to already rickety structures as families have grown.

Building codes exist on paper but not, often, on the ground. The old adage that "earthquakes don't kill, buildings do" came to mind as we worked our way through the warren of lanes.

The following week, we went to see retrofitted and new, earthquake-proof schools.

One new school on the outskirts of Kathmandu had been built with just one staircase and escape route; another had a storeroom for emergency equipment, locked and with just two keys held by goodness knows who while old computers were stacked on shelves, waiting to come crashing down.

One of our group bluntly told our local hosts that this level of preparedness was simply not good enough; the rest of us, unsettled, felt this was not the time or the place to voice such criticisms. How wrong we were.

Nepal is a least developed country, with a dysfunctional state, distinctly limited capacity, and reliant on a mix of remittances from migrant workers and assistance from donors.

For many poor Nepalese investment in earthquake prevention was bottom of their list of priorities; education, health and livelihoods came first. Or they did until Saturday.

Two of us left Nepal just days before the earthquake. But one of us - Hanna - stayed to undertake PhD research on earthquakes and resilience in Bharatpur, slightly closer to the epicentre of the quake than Kathmandu.

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