Major earthquakes hit Nepal on 75-year cycle, but poverty, crowded populations and poor construction mean death tolls will only rise, warn experts.
Nepal has long been bracing for the “big one” but when 50 earthquake specialists gathered in Kathmandu last week for a seminar on how to better prepare for that devastating eventuality, they had no idea how soon disaster would strike.
“I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was and I thought at the very time that the area was heading for trouble,” said James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the Cambridge University, who was at the meeting.
The combination of ultra-high population densities, lax building regulations and rickety concrete construction has long led scientists to fear that a big quake in Kathmandu would kill tens of thousands of people.
“It’s buildings that kill people not earthquakes,” said Mr Jackson, who is also lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, a group that tries to make Asia more able to bounce back from earthquakes like the 2005 Kashmir quake that killed 70,000 people in and around the city Muzaffarabad.
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Mercifully, when this weekend’s quake in Nepal did strike, at magnitude 7.8 it was smaller than the 8.1 quake that struck six miles south of Mount Everest in 1934 killing 10,000 people in area of sparse population.
“It was sort of a nightmare waiting to happen,” added Mr Jackson of the roughly 75-year cycle for major earthquakes in the region, “Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen.”
GeoHazards International, a group that tries to minimise earthquake risk, estimated in a 2001 report that a similar quake to that of 1934 would kill 40,000, and in a updated report this month warned of the rising risks facing those living in the Kathmandu Valley where populations are growing at the rate of 6.5 per cent a year.
“In the Asian region, a person living in Kathmandu is about nine times more likely to be killed by an earthquake than a person living in Islamabad and about 60 times more likely than a person living in Tokyo,” the report found.
Put another way, the same level of severe shaking would cause 10 to 30 people to die per million residents in a developed region like California, but 1,000 or more in Nepal, and up to 10,000 in parts of Pakistan, India, Iran and China, according to estimates by the US Geological Survey.
The Nepali government has made efforts to improve construction and the enforcement of building regulations, the experts added, but such progress is hampered by poverty and corruption and inevitably falls far short of what is necessary.
“If you live in the Kathmandu Valley you have other priorities,” Mr Jackson concluded, “daily threats and daily nasty things happen to you in terms of air quality, water quality, pollution, traffic and just poverty. But it doesn’t mean that the earthquakes go away.”
This feature originally appeared in The Telegraph.