NEW DELHI: Nepal’s earthquake should act as a wake-up call to neighboring countries which have failed to learn lessons from their own disasters and where shoddy construction and rapid urbanization could lead to death on an even greater scale next time round, experts say.
Given its location on a seismic faultline, another major earthquake had long been feared in the Himalayan nation following a disaster in 1934 that flattened much of the capital Kathmandu.
Experts and engineers had been racing against time to try to better prepare the landlocked country, which like many of its neighbors is plagued by poverty, urban overcrowding and corruption, for the big one.
But the conditions that have long raised alarm bells for Nepal are mirrored across the South Asian region, regularly hit by quakes that have left tens of thousands dead and homeless in the last two decades.
“The quake could have happened anywhere in this region,” said Hari Kumar, regional coordinator for South Asia at GeoHazards International.
“This (the Nepal disaster) is an opportunity for the rest of Asia to turn things around. We can’t go on building death traps,” Kumar, whose organization works to reduce quake risks, told AFP.
As buildings crumbled in Nepal around midday on April 25, the quake was felt more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away in New Delhi, where residents fled onto the streets, and Bangladesh, where walls of busy factories cracked.
The region regularly suffers quakes as the Indian subcontinent gets pushed below the Eurasian tectonic plate.
Among the worst of the recent disasters was a 7.7 quake which killed around 25,000 people in the western Indian state of Gujarat in January 2001 while 75,000 died in a quake centred on Pakistan in October 2005.
Experts warned the region’s governments against turning a blind eye to the devastation in Nepal, imploring them to work harder to reduce their own vulnerability.
Catastrophe in Dhaka
In impoverished Bangladesh, engineer Mehedy Hasan Ansary predicted a catastrophe in the capital Dhaka where millions are crammed into apartments, whose owners have skimped on building materials.
“More than 100,000 buildings in Dhaka are risky and could collapse,” Ansary, from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, told AFP.
A study by Bangladesh’s government in 2009 concluded that 250,000 buildings nationwide would implode if a major earthquake hit, with many built on landfill and other soft soil that shifts during tremors.
“Many are also made by masons who did not use any steel rods or reinforced concrete in constructing buildings,” Abdul Qayyum, head of the government’s disaster management program, told AFP.
Nepal, which also suffers from poor building standards, had been working before the quake to reduce its risks, including taking steps to retrofit schools, despite a lack of resources, Kumar said.
“In 2003 they brought in new building codes. There were many things that they did right and this possibly saved many lives.”
GeoHazards has also been working with Bhutan, east of Nepal, to better protect its hospitals and schools, including training staff and running safety drills, following a minor quake there in 2009.
The need to better protect schools was highlighted in Sichuan in China in 2008 when more than 5,000 children and teachers were crushed to death after classrooms collapsed during a massive quake.