What Nepal can teach about improving earthquake resilience in developing world

The earthquake in Nepal is the latest event to highlight the challenges to and opportunities for reducing vulnerability to earthquakes that strike developing countries.

Altaf Qadri/AP
A Nepalese boy talks on a mobile phone near a damaged minaret of a mosque in Kathmandu, Nepal, Tuesday. A strong earthquake shook Nepal’s capital and the densely populated Kathmandu Valley on Saturday.

The powerful earthquake that struck central and western Nepal on Saturday is providing the most rigorous test yet of the country's 23-year effort to build or retrofit structures to increase their resistance to earthquake damage.

It's been a tough slog for a country.

Its per capita gross domestic product leaves it second only to Afghanistan in Asia. In the past seven years, Nepal has seen its government change hands five times. Urban populations are growing. And enforcement of its seismic code typically has been spotty, say earthquake-hazard specialists who work in the country.  

These and other factors highlight some of the challenges Nepal and other developing countries face to reducing vulnerability to earthquakes, specialists say.

Despite these challenges, countries can move in positive directions, specialists add. Groups inside and outside Nepal have been working at various levels within the country to improve earthquake resistance among existing and new structures. Last Saturday's earthquake and its aftershocks will deliver the first report card.

The magnitude 7.8 temblor has affected a third of the country's 30 million people, leaving at least 4,700 dead and 9,200 injured, according to the United Nations and the country's home ministry.

What grade will the risk-reduction efforts earn? "That's what I'm eager to find out," says Brian Tucker, president of GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, Calif., that focuses on helping developing countries reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards. His organization has worked extensively in Nepal.

Teaming up with another nonprofit group in Nepal, his organization has helped modify schools to improve their quake resistance.

"I think there's no question that the retrofit ones are stronger and would perform better" than schools that haven't been modified, he says.

But it will take a close-up look to see how significant the differences are, he adds.

The challenges fall into four broad groups, says Arthur Lerner-Lam, a seismologist who heads the Center for Hazards and Risk Research at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.

  • Does a country have in-house specialists or international advisers with sufficient training and experience to recognize and assess the country's earthquake risk and to think about the design strategies needed to reduce vulnerability in the face of that risk?
  • Does a country have the organizations and institutions – a good geological survey agency and agencies to oversee construction and enforcement of building codes?
  • In a developing country that is poor or even within so-called economies in transition, what are the government's and public's priorities and where does earthquake-hazard reduction rank on that list?
  • How much money is a country willing to spend today to reduce a future risk?

"Obviously, after a disaster you get this big uptick in people's sense of what's important," he says. But in the absence of a disaster, the larger priority may lie with meeting immediate needs rather than addressing the prospect of a future disaster.

Seth Stein, a seismologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and coauthor of an analysis on approaches to preparing for extreme geohazards that was unveiled at an international geophysics symposium in Vienna in March, puts it bluntly:

"Natural hazards are a big problem in the developing world, as are a gazillion other things," he says. "Imagine you have a fair number of towns that don't have a school. If you're the minister of education in some earthquake-prone developing country, would you rather build 75 earthquake-resistant schools or 100 non-earthquake-resistant schools?"   

"The answer to that question is not obvious," he says, in no small part because cultural factors can influence the answer as well as scientific or economic factors.

"One should recognize that the leaders in these third-world countries are, in some cases, quite savvy and are just tying to solve some very tricky problems."

Such conflicting demands for resources aren't unique to developing countries.

"I just heard a very nice talk by a guy who is the head of disaster preparedness for the European Union," Dr. Stein recalls. "He said that one of his contemporaries went in to ask for money for flood preparations in his country, and the minster of finance said: 'You know, that sounds like a good idea, but half an hour ago I had the education minister in here wanting more money for kindergartens.' "

Money is the link between all these challenges to boosting resistance to natural hazards in general and earthquakes in particular.

That point was underscored in a study published last week in Nature Geoscience on vulnerability to floods. Researchers found that economic growth, measured in per capita GDP,  in developing nations had narrowed the vulnerability gap between rich and poor countries, pointing to stronger economics as a key to hazard-reduction efforts.

Intriguingly, Mr. Tucker of GeoHazards International notes that tiny Bhutan appears to have been more receptive to ideas for reducing earthquake risks than has Nepal. Bhutan has a population of just under 750,000, compared with Nepal's 26.5 million. Its economy is a small fraction of Nepal's. And its government has been more stable. Its per capita GDP also is three times higher than that of Nepal.

Following a large earthquake in 1988, Nepal adopted a basic seismic code in 1994 and has added to it since then.

Driven by urban population growth and spotty code enforcement, however, cities have sprouted new, unsafe buildings, local seismic-hazard specialists have noted.

While the code has worked its way into the country's engineering community, only about 10 percent of the country's buildings are designed by engineers – and they typically aren't even at the construction site as their building rises, according to Amod Mani Dixit, executive director of the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), a nongovernment organization based in Katmandu. Ninety percent are built by heads of household or local masons who traditionally have little or no contact with the engineering community.

One challenge the country faced early on was what appeared to be a low priority among average Nepalese for paying higher taxes to build earthquake-resistant structures.

Tucker recalls conducting a survey with in-country partners that asked people if they would accept a tax increase to retrofit buildings for earthquake resistance. The vast majority said no to buildings ranging from the parliament building to temples to their own homes.

"When we asked about your child's school, some 85 percent said they would be willing to donate money or labor," he says.

In one village, he notes, he and local collaborators tested that response by offering to pay half of the cost for retrofitting the village school. Local masons volunteered, and the school – itself of very simple construction – underwent a basic retrofit.

A follow-up visit 10 years later revealed that the vast majority of buildings built since the school had been retrofitted included one or more of the techniques used to reinforce the school. The masons had learned the techniques. In subsequent projects, the residents chose to incorporate the changes as well.

"It certainly wasn't perfect," Tucker says of the effort. But some 80 percent of Nepal's population lives in rural villages. And with such a large proportion of structures built by local masons or homeowners themselves, retrofitting schools appeared to be the point of entry for encouraging wider adoption of earthquake-resistant construction practices appropriate to the techniques and materials the villagers use.

Meanwhile, among a long list of past and current earthquake risk-reduction projects, NSET has been working with 24 city governments to develop ways to set up a system to issue and enforce building permits to ensure that structures are built in ways that reduce their vulnerability to earthquakes. The project, financed by a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is in its third and final year.

If past experience elsewhere is any indication, the disaster could prod the country to put earthquake resilience higher on its agenda.

In Turkey, for example, the government worked with universities in Ankara and Istanbul to develop better ways of managing and enforcing building codes. The effort came on the heels of a devastating quake in 1999, which among other things destroyed 120,000 homes that proved to be poorly engineered, even though the country had earthquake codes at the time.

The country "is on the right path," says Dr. Lerner-Lam of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The same can't be said for other countries in the region. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, "war is still torquing everything," he says.

It's less clear what kind of priority Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kazakhstan have given earthquake risk-reduction, he notes.

Persistent attention from outside nongovernment organizations can help on the issue, he adds.

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