Preparing western Nepal for a future megaquake is now even more urgent than reconstruction in areas hit by the 2015 disaster
Nepalis live in one of the most seismically active zones in the world. Nepal is number one in the list of top ten countries vulnerable to catastrophic earthquakes. But even the 2015 disaster will pale in comparison to a much bigger earthquake which scientists say threatens western Nepal.
Geologists are hesitant to predict when earthquakes will strike, they will only say it is going to happen one day and that we should be prepared.
But Himalayan seismologist Roger Bilham prefers to tell people to their face that the 2015 earthquake was not the Big One which scientists had feared. He says it is still collecting energy that could be let off in future.
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Bilham and other seismologists say there are two dangers lurking beneath the Himalaya: one is the unfinished business of 2015, and the other is a looming megaquake in western Nepal.
Scientists agree that if a slip has already occurred in one section of the Himalaya, another earthquake of the same magnitude is unlikely to hit the same area for about 100 years – unless the energy has not been fully released.
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The 2015 earthquake of 7.8 magnitude has been compared to a similar intensity quake that hit Kathmandu in 1833. That one also did not completely dissipate its energy, and sure enough another quake hit the Valley in 1866.
Bilham says that double whammy could be repeated. However, the second quake this time could cause more damage because its epicentre may be in faults directly beneath Kathmandu Valley. Fingers crossed that the energy will release itself in a creep, and not a jolt.
The second scenario for western Nepal is even scarier. It could be the mother of all earthquakes because there hasn’t been a megaquake in western Nepal since an estimated 8.4 quake struck in 1505.
Video: Robert Butler, University of Portland
Bijay Krishna Upadhyay of the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET-Nepal) says the western half of the country is at double risk because of the long seismic gap and relatively low awareness about earthquake safety.
After a relatively low intensity 6.8 magnitude earthquake epicentred in Udayapur killed nearly 700 people in Dharan and surrounding areas in 1988, it was easier for the government and organisations like NSET to convince people to build earthquake-resistant houses in eastern Nepal.
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“We now need to shift our attention not just to western Nepal but the entire country while continuing with reconstruction in the earthquake-affected districts,” says Upadhyay.
A campaign to spread awareness about earthquake safety had been started in western Nepal after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake killed 180 people in and around Bajhang district in 1980. But the focus shifted to eastern Nepal after the Dharan tragedy.
However, in the last three years the focus has once more gone to the 14 districts of Central Nepal hit by the 2015 earthquake. As a result, the western part of the country which scientists consider the most vulnerable is not prepared at all for an earthquake that is sure to hit one day.
Ajaya Dixit, author of a recent book on disaster preparedness (Nepalma Bipad), says: “Our response to the 2015 earthquake has largely focused on rebuilding damaged houses, and we have not looked at disasters in their entirety to prevent systemic vulnerability from reproducing itself elsewhere.”
One government official who has been harping on retrofitting buildings all over Nepal after the 2015 earthquake is Govind Raj Pokhrel, the former CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). He proposed training on reinforced masonry all over the country, including the west, to ease the shortage of skilled bricklayers in the districts hit in 2015.
“It could have helped technology transfer. After building houses in the earthquake-affected districts, they could have returned to their own villages in western Nepal and inspired others to build earthquake-resistant houses,” he explains.
But the NRA bureaucracy and donors prefer to focus on a disaster that has already happened instead of one that has not struck yet. Pokhrel himself resigned to contest elections, and his proposal was shelved.
One silver lining is that after last year’s local and provincial polls, enforcing building codes are now mandatory in municipalities and villages across the country. Local governments will be the best place to implement this requirement, and some provincial governments have already prioritised disaster preparedness in their first plans and policies.
In Province 4, Chief Minister Prithvi Subba Gurung has decided to set up an emergency relief fund, and promises to strictly implement the building code in Pokhara and other towns to prepare his region for future shock.
“Nepalis tend to forget a tragedy very quickly, but our provincial government will never forget the lessons learnt from the 2015 earthquake,” Gurung told us.
However good plans and policies sound, in Nepal the proof of the pudding is always in the implementation.
Kathmandu has an excellent building code, for example, but it has been flagrantly flouted leading to the loss of lives in 2015.
Dixit says awareness about disaster preparedness among local governments and the new national Disaster Management Act that focuses on preparedness are encouraging. But, he adds: “Major limitations exist: low institutional capacity, lack of financial and other resources, skill sets and equipment.”
Himalayan seismic gaps
What makes Mt Machapuchre (6990m) such a stunning peak (above) is also what makes it dangerous. Central and western Nepal have not suffered a megaquake for 700 years. Map below shows potential future intensity of earthquakes and slip in metres based on estimate of stored tectonic pressure along the Himalayan arc.