They knew it was coming. They knew it would be large and that it would be devastating. They just didn’t know quite when it would strike or exactly where. They also did not know what could be done in the short term to minimize the loss of life and property damage that would inevitably result.
That’s why they met in Kathmandu – as it turns out – just one week before the 7.8 magnitude temblor struck on Saturday. The international team of 50 experts in earthquakes and the social sciences assembled to discuss the dangers and the possibilities for minimizing the damage and recovery process.
James Jackson, lead scientist of Earthquakes Without Frontiers had been walking the very streets – contemplating the “nightmare waiting to happen” – just prior to the quake. It turned out to be not as massive as its magnitude 8.1 predecessor, which struck the Kathmandu Valley in 1934, killing 10,000 people and sinking buildings in India.
Thus far, the body count from Saturday’s quake has reached around 4,000 people and the number is still expected to rise. Ancient monuments have fallen and entire neighborhoods disappeared. Impoverished families crowded together in polluted urban centers now have far less than the nothing they had the week before the quake struck.
The ground shook well beyond Nepal’s borders into Tibet and northern India. It was one of the worst natural disasters to strike the Himalayas in years. Saturday’s quake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that has claimed 10 lives. And the aftershocks keep coming.
Earthquake Without Frontiers works to find ways to raise the resiliency levels of people and places in Asia following earthquakes. But given the lack of strong building codes in so many of these countries – in addition to the lack of resources – prospects for improvement are appalling. "The real problem in Asia is how people have concentrated in dangerous places," Jackson explained.
Saturday’s earthquake occurred along one of the biggest geological collision zones on the planet, which is what makes this area so seismically dangerous. But the greatest threat comes not from the seismic events but from poorly built buildings collapsing on top of families. Where a few dozen people per million might die in California from a quake of this size, in Nepal, it’s more like 1000 per million residents that die when an earthquake strikes. And the numbers climb substantially in Pakistan, India, Iran and China, according to USGS seismologist David Wald.
With the population in Nepal growing at the rate of 6.5% per year, the Kathmandu Valley has one of the highest urban population densities in the world. And with unemployment so high, a large percentage of young men go to other countries to earn a living and support their families at home. Their absence will make reconstruction efforts all the more difficult. Hopefully, the global family will step up with the ways and means to make life in Nepal more livable for everyone.