Before the devastating 2015 earthquake hit Nepal, the small, underdeveloped country had made some of the right moves to prepare for a quake disaster, but the steps taken and the available resources were piecemeal.
Myanmar is in a similar position to Nepal: earthquake prone and under-prepared. The lesson from Nepal is not to delay – prepare before it’s too late.
The April 25 Nepal quake shook the central part of the mountainous country. In seconds, its economy was set back for years to come. The 7.8 magnitude quake killed around 9,000 people, injured about 203,000 and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes.
Only days before the Nepal quake, about 50 earthquake experts, social scientists, and others from around the world, met in Katmandu to discuss quake preparedness before “the big one” hit the densely populated capital city.
Myanmar is now in the first stages of developing a systematic earthquake preparedness plan – the Earthquake Risk Management Strategy. This is an effort under the direction of government officials with the support of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee, an NGO in Yangon. This is receiving support from the European Commission, through its Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway.
Myanmar has much work to do in creating an effective governmental response agency and putting a professional staff in place, including the establishment of professionally trained search and rescue teams.
When the earthquake struck, Katmandu officials had established only partial building codes and a comprehensive disaster preparedness plan was lacking. Understandably, its financial and infrastructure resources to respond to the emergency were simply inadequate to the challenge. Much like Myanmar today.
When it comes to disasters, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was Myanmar’s earlier wake-up call. The 2015 Nepal quake is another.
Disasters are inevitable
"Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen,” said seismologist James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the University of Cambridge in England, referring to the Nepal earthquake.
But luckily, the April quake unlocked only a small fraction of the fault line’s energy. The fault is about 120 kilometers wide (75 miles) and is “tightly locked” from one end of the Himalaya to the other over a distance of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). Scientists say it could release a much more powerful quake than the April temblor.
Researchers cannot say when the next big quake will happen in Nepal, but people living in quake-prone areas should be prepared and stronger buildings codes should be put in place as soon as possible.
Jackson, who serves as the lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, said the same size shock waves of a quake can have larger or smaller effects in different parts of the world because of the lack of building codes and unsafe construction.
A quake of 7.8 magnitude quake might kill 10 to 30 people per million in California, but 1,000 or maybe more in Nepal, and up to 10,000 in parts of Pakistan, India, Iran and China, said USGS seismologist David Wald.
Except for landslides, "it's buildings that kill people not earthquakes," Jackson said. “If you lived in a flat desert with no water, an earthquake wouldn't harm you. The real problem in Asia is how people have concentrated in dangerous places.”
Gov’t gambled and lost
With an annual population growth rate of 6.5 percent and one of the highest urban densities in the world, the 1.5 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley were clearly facing a serious and growing earthquake risk, said Hari Ghi, Southeast Asia regional coordinator for Geohazards International.
For years homes and other structures were built without any regard for earthquakes, said a report by Ghi. The majority of buildings were not designed by engineers or architects who could have ensured the structures were more able to withstand most quakes.
Recently, the Nepal government had worked out a plan that began streamlining building code approvals and that effort helped reduce the loss of life, experts say, but the plan was not grandfathered to cover older structures or “non-engineered” buildings. Myanmar is now working on a National Building Code.
In addition, the Nepal government woke up late to professional urban planning that would have better organized the type, size and location of buildings and neighborhoods.
Myanmar officials are now working on urban planning in Yangon and other cities. This, it must be stressed, needs to include earthquake risk in the planning process.
Poverty and pollution made the problem worse in Katmandu, Ghi said, because most people don't spend time worrying about a future earthquake when they have more pressing daily problems.
Myanmar wakes up
In Myanmar, there is now a heightened awareness of the need to be prepared for disasters, everything from earthquakes to flood, cyclones and droughts. So what other lessons can be learned from Nepal?
Disaster planning and training at all levels
All underdeveloped countries must take steps to create a Comprehensive Emergency Disaster Response Plan, with designated staff and officials responsible for management and coordination.
Sudhir Kumar, former Senior Project Manager at Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), says government plans should incorporate disaster risk responses and reduction issues into development planning to ensure that national, regional and local agencies are not caught unprepared.
Emergency plan responses should identify operational centres and personnel to coordinate emergency responses and serve as information resource sources.
The National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal (NSET), coordinating with Nepal officials, has been an important player and instrumental in planning preparedness and disaster responses.
Nepal had a Mass Casualty Management plan for the Katmandu Valley, but Myanmar has yet to design such a comprehensive plan.
Nepal had also started to retrofit some unsafe buildings including schools, hospitals and government offices, and that effort, although partial, had an impact in preventing greater loss of life.
Additionally, an important technological innovation for all countries is to establishment a disaster risk reduction portal on the Internet, which can serve as a one-stop information centre which government officials and the public can turn to on an ad hoc basis, including preventive measures and training methods and real-time information when a disaster strikes.
Such a website portal could provide vital information for disaster preparedness planning and during an emergency it can provide updates on the latest timely response efforts and needs.
More post-quake responses
Nepal is now a changed country. Earthquake preparedness is an ever-present thought among the public and government officials, but nothing can prevent an earthquake.
"The situation is quite scary if you put the realities in front of you," said disaster expert Amod Dixit, executive director of NSET,
But, the message is that the cost in lives and the economy can be lessened if proper planning and preparedness steps are put in place.
Nepal officials say frontline actions are now underway.
"We now have offices responsible for ensuring building codes are adhered to. They are ready to work with all concerned agencies," said senior official Surya Bhakta Sangachhe, director-general of the Nepal Department of Urban Development and Building Construction.
One small, but critical, step occurred a few months ago when the government started a long-term construction training programme, dispatching a team of masons to villages in 14 quake-affected districts to teach other masons how to build better, quake-resistant structures.
Organised by the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training and other supporting groups, the masons trained other masons, and the knowledge will spread quickly through the region, ensuring reconstruction efforts meet higher standards. Eventually, the government plans to impart the training to 70,000 masons throughout Nepal.
Early warning system
It won’t prevent an earthquake, but a plan for a new government-run early warning system may give some people enough time to avoid death or serious injury. The first phase of the system was put in place by the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, which alerts the public 10 to 25 seconds before tremors are felt. The first stage of the system is in place around Katmandu, and the plan will branch out to other areas. Alerts are broadcast through various mediums, such as mobile phones and computer devices, FM stations and sirens at hospitals and other public places.
Prepare reliable maps
Another simple step before earthquakes or disasters strike: Prepare designated maps of all public spaces that could be used for temporary shelters, or as waste disposal sites.
In Katmandu, nine of 83 such open spaces were eventually allocated as sites for debris management, but were ultimately found to be insufficient for the management of debris.
The need to identify open spaces is crucial to manage debris during the emergency phase in order to facilitate a smoother rescue operation and provide access to critical roads and rescue sites.
There should be designated sites for displaced people, the injured and the dead.
Many private schools, colleges, public buildings, nursing homes and other large structures can be designated as evacuation shelters and treatment centres in the event of an earthquake or other disaster.
Steps large and small are needed to prepare underdeveloped countries for earthquake and disaster preparedness.
"They knew they had a problem but it was so large they didn't know where to start or how to start," said one disaster preparedness adviser, referring to the Nepal quake.
Nepal is another wake-up call for Myanmar. The best answer on where and how to start is simply now – at both the national and local level – before it’s too late.