Linda Kehoe, who has worked in Nepal, explains why the earthquake claimed so many lives.
Natural disasters cannot be prevented but they can be prepared for. While the risk of earthquake occurrence cannot be reduced, the risk of devastation can be and showed the devastation that nature can wreak. Despite the warnings that an earthquake was “scientifically inevitable and historically overdue” and the fact that it is the world’s 11th most-at-risk country for earthquakes (2nd-most-at-risk for natural disasters) Nepal was not prepared. As a result the April 25 earthquake in Nepal took 8700 lives, injured 17000 others.
We prepare for risk because it makes social, economic, medical and common-sense. The higher the risk the better it is to plan for the event. Preparation saves time, energy, money and in event of natural disasters- buildings, jobs and lives. So why was Nepal so ill-prepared? The fact is that preparation itself takes money and good governance- both of which are in short supply in Nepal.
Nepal is poor- one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the UN Human Development Index Nepal ranks 145 of 187 countries. It is a small Himalayan nation of 28 million people squashed between the giants of India and China (Chinese-occupied Tibet!).
North to south, Nepal is split into three regions: the Mountains (Himalayas), the fertile hills and the hot grasslands. This geography means Nepal suffers from floods, avalanches, earthquakes, heavy snow, monsoons and drought.
Each new disaster is yet another set-back in a country already struggling to develop. 30% of the rural population do not yet have access to running water or electricity. The headquarters of 15 of the Nepals 75 districts are not connected to a road at all. This major hindrance to development became even more of an obstacle when trying to distribute aid following the earthquake.
As in many developing, and indeed struggling, nations, the villages empty into the cities as youth search for education, employment and excitement. Kathmandu is a beautiful, bustling and vibrant capital city of 2 million people today compared to the 700,000 of a decade ago.
The city has sprawled outwards and upwards in that time with no regard for the paltry building regulations that do not call for earthquake-proof structures. There is a severe lack of policy and regulation, and those which exist are rarely enforced.
The governments of richer nations, such as Japan, have successfully implemented disaster risk reduction policies. But Nepal has lagged far behind. Nepal drafted a Disaster Management bill in 2008 which was endorsed in October 2009 but it has yet to be made into law.
Nepal is a political nightmare born of struggles against its powerful neighbours of China and India, of colonialism, the caste-system, ethnic-divides, Maoist-led rebellions, , and a ten-year civil war. Only in 2008 did Nepal formally end the 240-year monarchy and become the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. The development of Nepal- from roads to schools, homes to hospitals -has been put on hold while the ineffectual, arguing government parties attempt to draw up a constitution. Nepal’s national identity and legal system are in limbo.
What the tragic fate of Nepal shows is that when natural disasters strike it is always the poor that suffer most. It will be the same with the not-so-natural disasters caused by climate change.