The Nepal earthquakes are a painful reminder for all of us that almost the entire South Asian population lies in harm’s way. Consider the fact that 80 per cent of India’s building stock is non-engineered. Even the balance stock is not necessarily capable of withstanding earthquakes of the magnitude that struck Nepal. While the risk of earthquakes is everywhere, it is particularly accentuated in urban areas due to their population density.
Today, India is rapidly urbanising. As per the 2011 Census, every third Indian now lives in an urban area. Large scale migration has overloaded the limited housing stock in cities. Every year, there are more than three thousand building collapses (ncrb.nic.in).These are symptomatic of our
current state of infrastructure and their vulnerability to earthquakes. There are other factors as well – while building codes exist, there is little enforcement by local governments due to poor governance.
The result of poor governance is evident from the earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile in 2010. Haiti was hit by an earthquake on January 12 and Chile, just five weeks later. The Haiti earthquake killed 2,00,000 people and in Chile, a 500-times stronger earthquake claimed 800 lives. Apparently, the difference in mortality was due to the location and depth of the two earthquakes. However, a deeper analysis reveals a number of governance factors that were in play, that contributed to the differing tolls.
Chile has an excellent building code instituted since the 1930s; Haiti has no building code and a vast majority of people lived in poorly constructed houses. Transparency International, a global civil society organisation that fights against corruption, headquartered in Berlin, ranks Haiti at 168 and Chile at 25 in the least-to-most corrupt index. Little wonder that governance-related inefficiencies in Haiti led to large scale damage to buildings and the corresponding toll in human lives. Investing in disaster prevention has rarely been a priority for governments. As a politician from Philippines confessed, “disaster risk reduction will become my priority only if it can get me more votes in the next election”.
In developing regions such as ours, the focus is on economic growth and visible results achieved in a short period. Development and growth create new risks and vulnerability that are simply overlooked. A proactive citizenry is needed to hold governments to account in ensuring that human-induced factors do not cause disasters and loss of lives. Citizen empowerment can be brought about through greater awareness on existing risks and new risks that are created through development investments. Do governments carry out proper risk assessments, and if so, are these used to guide investment decisions? It is high time citizens and civil society organisations ask these questions.
If the Nepal earthquakes do not succeed in waking us up, probably nothing else can. We cannot wait for another tragedy to come our way. A fait accompli attitude must be discarded in favour of an alert, more resilient path.
Planning for disasters and preparing for them is a good measure to start with. Even hospitals and households can practice basic drills—like knowing where the immediate risks lie, knowing how to protect themselves in an earthquake and in case of unavoidable injury,learn to administer first aid. Of course, these measures are useful to cut down losses from large catastrophic events, but prevention can only be achieved through long-term mitigation planning, and by ensuring that all new development is sensitive to potential risks.
Since poorly constructed buildings are the biggest killer in earthquakes, our priority for mitigation is clearly cut out. Earthquake resistant technology has already been in use for many decades now. The Indian Seismic Code for buildings, IS 1893 has been in place since 1962. We need to ensure that all new buildings henceforth adhere to this code. At the very minimum, a well-engineered building can prove to be a strong defence against low to medium intensity quakes. Not just new buildings, but existing buildings could also be retrofitted with technologies in practice all over the world. In India, the IS 13935 code for load bearing buildings, which form majority of the existing building stock, is in existence.
The California State Government passed the Field Act following the 1933 Long Beach earthquake to ensure that all schools in California comply with seismic resistant technology. The effort was huge and it took almost 50 years to implement. However, not a single school has collapsed since, in much deadlier earthquakes that occurred in subsequent decades. In more recent times, the Canadian government launched a similar seismic mitigation programme in British Columbia covering all 339 schools in the region.
Such programmes are not just the exclusive domain of rich nations. In India,similar efforts were initiated in the past, but lack of popular support has let them remain largely piece meal. Given our present predicament, it is inoperative that such issues be put on priority for the resilience and sustainability of our societies.
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015 signed by 186 countries, which was put in place just a month prior to the Nepal earthquake is the best existing instrument for us to embark on a path of reasonable growth and a safe future. The Sendai Framework calls for a substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.
Given the present context, the Framework is by far our best bet for a safe world for future generations.