This small and impoverished country of 28 million people lies in a prime earthquake zone – international experts were in Kathmandu just over a week ago predicting an imminent disaster. And it happened in a city with a population of over one million that is crammed with vulnerable old structures, many new buildings that have been inadequately designed and badly constructed, and masses of shantytown slums.
Sadly, with variations, this is story of imminent catastrophe that applies across South Asia. Hundreds of potential disasters have been created by the pressure of growing populations and expanding economies, plus a disregard for natural and man-made environmental dangers and the failings of weak and corrupt governments that fail to tackle problems that everyone knows about.
In Nepal, the story has been building up for decades, confounding international aid agencies and others who have tried to tackle social, environmental and other challenges.
When I first visited Nepal 30 years ago, I wrote (in The Financial Times) that “deep-rooted corruption siphons off a large proportion of international aid and cripples the country’s economic growth and public administration.” Members of the now-ousted royal family were heading the plunder, and one aid worker told me the leakages were so dire that his country would only provide equipment, not money.
Since then Nepal, which is a buffer state between India and China, has been wracked by relentless political instability, a Maoist uprising and civil war. Governments have not even been able to begin to tackle macro economic development, let alone the intractable problems that made the earthquake and its after-shocks so serious.
The good news is the way that international help was quickly mobilized over the weekend. India led the way within hours of the quake, flying in supplies and support teams in an operation personally led by Narendra Modi, the prime minister who showed, perhaps for the first time since he was elected a year ago, his ability to swing a cumbersome government machine into immediate action.
The earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, had been forecast to happen because it is 80 years since the last such disaster which demolished large areas of Kathmandu and killed over 17,000 people.
It is the result of what is known as the Indian tectonic plate moving northwards at the rate of 5cm a year into central Asia and the Eurasian plate. Originally this threw up the Himalayan mountain range and the fault line has triggered a series of quakes, most recently in Kashmir in 2005 when over 70,000 people were killed in Pakistan and neighbouring countries.
Just a week ago, 50 earthquake scientists from around the world met in Kathmandu to discuss how the area would cope with such a disaster. “Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen,” seismologist James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the Cambridge University, told the Daily Mail. “I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was and I thought at the time that the area was heading for trouble,’ said Jackson, lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, a group that tries to help Asian cities prepare for disasters.
There is of course extreme grief in Nepal, and across the world, for the loss of those who have died, and concern for those who have been injured or have not yet been found. Government ministers join in the expressions of sorrow and pledges to provide aid, but it often seems that life in this region is not valued highly. Little is done once the crisis has past, beyond slowly rebuilding people’s lives, their homes and places of work.
Public services are allowed to decay, and there is scant concern for public safety. Two years ago, there were some 6,000 deaths when devastating floods hit the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand adjacent to Nepal.
The floods were caused by torrential rain but they were exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many settlements had been built next to the rivers in blatant violation of corruptly administered environmental laws – but little or nothing has been done in the past two years to improve the situation.
The Nepalese are sturdy strong people and they will rebuild their lives, haphazardly. But they have little opportunity to plan further than their immediate needs, and the sort of action taken by, for example, Japan to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes is beyond what they can even dream about.
That then is the challenge for international aid agencies, and for Narendra Modi at the head of Nepal’s largest neighbor. From Afghanistan across to Bhutan and Bangladesh and down into India, a new approach is needed to handling natural disasters and, in particular, trying to ensure that buildings can withstand earthquakes. That is a huge challenge for governments, but in India it is just the sort of thing that Modi was elected to achieve, by making government work.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent