The Catastrophe We All Saw Coming

Nepalis have long waited anxiously for an earthquake known as The Big One. So why didn’t more of us prepare?


News of a large earthquake in Nepal made my mind race in all directions: I thought of my parents in Kathmandu, their drinking-water supplies, food, shelter, phone chargers, blood pressure pills. Like the millions of Nepalis living abroad, I scrambled to get in touch with people back home.

Everyone from Nepal knows that the country falls in one of the world’s most seismically active zones. The violent meeting of two tectonic plates forms the Himalayan range. We’ve always been told that a large earthquake — The Big One — was due. We’ve also always known that we were unprepared for it.

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, we observed that society with quiet admiration. A Nepali friend was there; she went to a shelter. The Japanese, she said, knew what to bring with them. They were completely prepared.

By contrast, in Nepal it has been part of the national ethos to know that our lives are imperiled, to brood over our lack of preparedness, to talk about it and crack macabre jokes about it, to upbraid ourselves about our negligence, and maybe, one day, to act on it. Why the procrastination?

Some might say that as a Hindu-majority society we’re prone to fatalism. Others might point out that it’s psychologically easier to live in denial than to accept that we’re constantly at risk. The greatest barrier, however, lies in the sheer practical difficulty of preparing. The cost alone is prohibitive.

Years of preparedness campaigning followed Nepal’s last major earthquake, in 1988. More recently, a high-profile effort by the U.S. Embassy, the U.N. Development Programme, and other international aid agencies raised public awareness. Minimizing risk has been a priority for these agencies’ staff members, who tend to live in high-rent, earthquake-proof houses with large, open spaces and survival kits.

For Nepalis, by contrast, knowledge is one thing, while the ability to act on it is quite another. About 10 years back, a friend in Kathmandu earthquake-proofed his house, setting an example. Few followed it. Few of us could afford to.

Haunted by the prospect of The Big One, I eventually persuaded my parents to earthquake-proof the family home. The exercise exposed my most deeply suppressed terrors about Nepal.

Kathmandu is the country’s most populous city. The worst-case scenarios there involve liquefaction — seismic tremors churning the ground like water. For that, there can be no such thing as an earthquake-proof house. The sturdiest options cost tens of thousands of dollars; my family opted for a middling level of protection.

Then came the grim task of assembling survival kits. The general advice is to be self-sufficient for up to a week following a disaster. The lists I consulted advised filling the kits with water and canned food, clothes and medical supplies, toiletries and flashlights — and also shovels and axes, tarpaulins and buckets.

The dark images that these lists evoked are the ones we’re seeing from Nepal today. To assemble the kit, I had to accept that everyone I knew in the country, everyone I loved there, lived on a thin, fragile crust that could vanish without warning. I had to overcome my own denial about how intensely vulnerable Nepali lives were.

I also had to fend off a sense of futility. The cheapest survival kits cost about $50, and a fully equipped one can cost up to $400. Once assembled, they must be stored in open spaces that are unlikely to suffer damage. It filled me with despair that few Nepalis could afford the kits, and fewer still the open spaces. It felt pointless to be doing this alone.

For making it through a disaster isn’t just about your own private endurance: It’s about having survival mechanisms in place for all of society.

Anyone walking around Kathmandu has felt jittery, observing the narrow alleys and rickety houses, the dearth of public spaces. There is only one international airport in Nepal; it often closes due to cracks in the runway. There is one paved highway in and out of Kathmandu. Much of the countryside is accessible only through rough, landslide-prone roads. As we’re seeing now, most rural houses offer little to no protection from catastrophe.

The more I prepared, the more my faith in Nepal faltered. And it faltered further still at what the government was doing, or not doing.

There are many engaged and responsible citizens in Nepal; they’re working hard today to help survivors cope with their losses. I feel confident that they’ll help society rebuild. It’s impossible to feel so about Nepal’s political class.

For years now, our politicians have indulged in a reckless struggle-to-the-death over influence, sacrificing governance and failing to complete that most elemental of nation-building tasks: to write a constitution. Meanwhile Nepalis have gone abroad by the millions. They’ve been exploited as migrant workers, and many have died in conditions akin to slavery in the Middle East. Back home, citizens put up with corruption, nepotism, and an absence of rule of law. Existing legislation has discriminated; public institutions have been exclusionary. People have died in epidemics, road accidents, and floods.

None of this mattered to members of the political class. Their single obsession was power: getting it, preserving it, barring their rivals from it. It was as though denial had become Nepal’s national psychosis, and our politicians believed that there were no consequences to having no charter for governance, no plan for the future. There was no consequence to being unprepared.

But as we see, there are consequences, and they are heartbreaking.

While Nepal’s security forces and other state institutions have responded as best they can, the political class has been caught out by this earthquake. The first responders have been Nepali citizens, with India and other countries and international aid agencies following. As the death tolls rise to harrowing numbers, as the magnitude of the destruction comes to light, Nepalis all over the world are pulling together to help family and friends and strangers. We’ll soon begin to contemplate next steps.

Overcoming our fatalism, denial, and sense of futility must surely be one of these. Making earthquake preparedness possible for Nepali society as a whole, and not just for the few who can afford it, is also urgent as we rebuild. For devastating as this earthquake has been, at magnitude 7.8, it wasn’t The Big One. There will be a Next One.

Nepal can’t rebuild without preparing, individually and collectively, for disaster. And it would be wonderful if the political class were to help with this. But failures don’t lie with this class alone. We all need to do better going forward.

As soon as I heard of the earthquake, I remembered I hadn’t updated my family’s survival kits last year. I’d been busy; there was always some more pressing task; I’d put it off. I’ve felt unrelenting remorse as my parents have spent nights out in the open, waiting for the aftershocks to subside. I’ve hoped desperately that they wouldn’t need the kits’ out-of-date supplies.

Mea maxima culpa.


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