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27 Apr 15 14:11

The Himalayan Mountain ranges are largely known as a top destination for trekking because of their pristine peaks and breathtaking views. At the same time this mountain range also happens to be one of the most seismically active regions in the world.

The Himalayan ranges were formed as a result of collision between Indian plate and Eurasian plate (a plate is the outermost layer of the earth with a depth of up to 200 km). The Indian plate is moving under the Eurasian plate at a rate of 4 to 5 centimeters per year, causing an uplift to the Himalayan region . This is what we call subduction of the Indian plate beneath the Eurasian plate makes the Himalayan region so seismically active.

On the morning of April 25 a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near Lamjung, with the epicenter between the capital Kathmandu (home to 1.2 million people) and Pokhara, the second largest city.This shallow earthquake, just 15km deep, was the result of a shift (near the main frontal thrust) of the two plates.

Kathmandu sits on a dried-up lake bed with a soft soil, which amplifies the seismic motion and further worsens the situation. The previously largest earthquake in Nepal (Mw –8.2) occurred in 1934 close to Nepal Bihar boundary and caused widespread liquefaction in the state of Bihar in India. Causalities rose above 10,000 in India and Nepal after the quake.

In the coming week there could be aftershocks with magnitude 5 or more, with the chances of aftershocks with magnitude above 6 are more at 60%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Tremors were widely felt in neighboring countries including India. The worst affected states in India are Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

At present the official casualty figure is over 3700,with casualties from India, China and Bangladesh. The figure is expected to rise. Widespread loss of property has been reported from Kathmandu and two of the historic monuments in Kathmandu, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Kathmandu Durbar Square and the Dharahara tower, were severely damaged. The earthquake also triggered an avalanche near Mount Everest and many trekkers are feared to be trapped. Moreover, it is estimated that around 300,000 tourists were in Nepal during this time of the year and this will have a huge impact on the tourism industry in Nepal.

The international community has started supporting Nepal in their relief efforts. While this will assist in initial rescue and recovery operations and is highly appreciated, this will not be enough to cover widespread damage (both economic and human losses) in the country or bring it back to a pre-disaster level.

Only a very small fraction of total economic losses is likely to be insured, highlighting the importance of state sponsored or public private partnership in providing insurance solutions to individuals and institutions to be resilient and quickly recover on experiencing such disasters. These solutions need to be supported by strong building codes,enforcements and better urban planning in these high hazard areas. Nepal can learn from other disasters on how to move forward. A good example are the steps taken by New Zealand government in red flagging many of the liquefaction prone areas in Christchurch after the series of earthquakes, which struck the Canterbury region in 2010 and 2011. 

If there is such a thing as a silver lining to an event like this, it is about the lessons that can be learned to prevent future catastrophes. This quake provides an opportunity for Kathmandu to rebuild the region with stronger building construction practices able to resist strong earthquakes in the future. It is also a striking reminder to the neighboring countries, particularly India which has grown tremendously in the last few decades. Many of the highly urbanized regions in India, including its national capital region are within the striking distance of a big Himalayan earthquake.Almost all of these cities are built on deep soil basin and induced effects like site amplification and liquefaction will worsen the earthquake effects. Given large inventory of poor quality structures with haphazard development, even a smaller magnitude earthquake will be enough to cause tremendous economic and human losses.

We cannot afford to ignore these risks any longer.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Earthquakes

Location: Nepal


6 Comments

Karthik Sampath - 27 Apr 2015, 6:51 p.m.

Thanks Vineet for your timely post on the Nepal earthquake. Looking at the pictures, one does not need to be a scientist to understand that this is a seismically very active zone and yet structures are built with little or no regard to earthquake proofing. A couple of years ago we witnessed the Himalayan tsunami in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand in India killing over 5000 but development continues in flood prone areas. With some of the highest population densities in this region, one wonders when will we reach the tipping point before things begin to change for the better. Insurance can certainly help but not be the only solution. We need change in behaviours and attitudes by both people and the Governments.

Alicia Montoya - 27 Apr 2015, 8:40 p.m.

It's so heart breaking. And yet I agree with you, we must focus on learning from this, if it's the only thing we do so that this can never happen again.

So I'd agree that building codes are key, but so is the money to build for resilience. When I was growing up in San Francisco, I remember living through many earthquakes, and I remember skyscrapers swaying from side to side and not suffering any damage. That kind of building is expensive and out of most developing countries' citizens' means.

I wish we stopped chaotically reacting after catastrophes by throwing money in all directions (money which I'm not even sure reaches those in need - more in that disaster relief corruption here https://openminds.swissre.com/stories/746/) and instead had a more long-term, preemptive approach, and spent some of that money on building for the future. How much of the relief funds goes towards resilience?

Kumar Chinnasamy - 29 Apr 2015, 3:58 a.m.

Yes I agree with you. Countries with a huge population should learn, understanding the reinsurance back up and risk engineering value addition is important at this moment. We cannot escape from CAT loss however the concern is whether we are really equipped with handling the post incident situation like this if it happens in India? General Insurance Broker should act as a family member, important of the personal touch beyond the business touch.

Vineet Kumar - 29 Apr 2015, 9:31 a.m.

Thanks for your comments.

I fully share your concerns about post disaster response if an earthquake affects one of the large urban centers in India given the large exposure concentrated in these regions. While disaster response was quite good for recent disasters like Cyclone Phailin in 2013, this can be far more challenging for earthquakes which occur with no warning.

Given the rapid growth in these regions, I believe the most efficient way to mitigate risk is to have strict building code enforcement for new constructions (which are coming at a rapid pace) and plan for retrofitting key structures in a phased manner to minimize the impact from future earthquakes.

David Sinai - 1 May 2015, 1:31 a.m.

Hi Alicia

At the risk of repeating myself (see my comments to Cyclone Pam post https://openminds.swissre.com/stories/775/ )....

"Perhaps, rather than provide post-event aid every time an event happens in a developing country, should ... developed countries instead fund, on an ex-ante basis, a combination of a) resilience programmes and b) insurance premiums?

There's a lot of risk out there that is not insured, and a lot of excess capital out there that could put to use in protecting those uninsured exposures via schemes like the Pacific disaster scheme. Whilst a dollar of aid post-loss will fix a dollar of damage post event, a dollar of premium aid before the event will gain access to a much more meaningful insurance cover."

Developing countries will, in all likelihood, not have funds to invest in resilience measures like broad-scale seismic retrofitting. Even relief funds will make a small dent to a retrofit programme. But if we can help fund insurance premiums to assist with post-disaster recovery, and rebuilding in a more resilient manner, then at least we might be able to avoid repeating mistakes of the past when the next event happens.

Alok Kumar - 3 May 2015, 6:20 p.m.

Thanks Vineet for this article about the recent tragic event. Large natural disasters, particularly in subcontinent where loss of lives are tremendous, are reminder of difference between quality of building codes and actual implementation of them on the ground. As a student of structural engineering in India and US, I remember comparing building codes of India with other countries and found not much difference. Building codes are almost similar across the world but what really makes a difference is degree of adherence to those standards. In subcontinent code enforcement is not strict and hence you see loss of life and property magnified during disasters.

I agree with David's comment above - to deal effectively with disasters, a greater emphasis would have to be paid on readiness of our environment especially in disaster prone area. A dollar spent during non-crisis time to prepare communities would save many more life and provide better financial cushion through insurance. Perhaps a consideration for our own Corporate Social Responsibility program to support building sustainable communities.


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