Kathmandu: the earthquake is coming. I’ve just realised.

It’s no secret that Kathmandu will be visited by an earthquake sometime soon. But only in the last week have I started to think about it a lot. And it gives you a lot to think about.

A geophysicist I met recently in a café posted an invitation to a lecture on the topic of Nepal and Earthquakes on a Kathmandu events mailing list.

I was ill so didn’t attend, but met her in a café the following day. The conversation ended with her saying, “I didn’t mean to scare you!” The first sobering thing that she mentioned was that she tries to avoid Thamel as much as possible, a place I frequent often. The reason why, “There’s nowhere to run”. Thamel is Kathmandu’s shoddy but decadent district where most of the bars, restaurants and tourist hotels are situated. It’s buildings are densely packed, as you’d expect in a place where money is to be made. The build quality can’t be vouched for however. As the saying goes, ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people’. In Thamel, there are too few open spaces to run to to avoid falling pieces of building that could kill you. And if not immediately bricks, tiles and concrete, then it will certainly be raining large plant pots with their struggling foliage that line up along balconies of restuarants and the edges of rooftops.

The second sobering fact was that she carries around with her a bottle of water, a torch (flashlight), a swiss army knife and some food in her bag whenever she goes out.

I learned several more things in the time it took to drink a cup of coffee. For instance, that a section of the Himalaya from Gamgadi in west Nepal to Kathmandu has had a deficit of earthquakes in the last decades compared to the areas either side of it. The tension is building up. And a final piece of information, the coffin-nail in my day, was the fact that the floor Kathmandu valley is sediment from an ancient lake bed surrounded by firmer hills. Tap your teacup and watch the waves to get an idea of what this means. The waves reflect from the edges back into the centre time and again. The energy takes much more time to dissipate, the ground keeps on wobbling, and thus the damaged caused is vastly greater than it otherwise would be. Not only that, but the silts’ resonant frequency is low compared to rock and similar to that of shallow earthquakes, which means, well look up resonance here.

The following day, I received an email saying: “You shouldn’t be afraid of earthquakes, just be aware of the risks and be prepared… Sorry if I scared you but remember, the next big earthquake could happen in 100 years!”

Well maybe, but I disagree with this. An earthquake is something to be utterly terrified of. And with regard to the 100 years, yesterday and earthquake of 5.4 was detected in Tibet 40 miles north of Namche Bazaar. This morning san aquiantance claimed: “tiny tremor of an earthquake this morning in ktm – i totally felt it, did you??”

I didn’t feel it and I am glad about that. However, I’d already started imagining the room swaying, the windows breaking, plaster exploding from the walls and ceiling, and wondering where I should move to, if should I grab my boxershots on the way, go out the front door or through the window on to the balcony. That’s at home lying in bed in a house that will hopefully hold up, though I have no evidence whatsoever for that.

Now I am sitting in a cafe with 5 floors above me. Who was the architect, who were the builders? It’s 20 m run to the front street or a jump to the rear over a spiked fence. All the time the ground will be violently shaking, the world will be falling apart. It will be unimaginable, although I am trying. And that’s imagining in the daytime. In the blackness of night, with no moon, during a period of load-shedding would not be good (but then of course, the lights would go out anyway as already leaning rotten electricity poles crack and tumble.)

And then what?

Well then it really gets terrifying as you pinch yourself and realise you are in the hell on earth that you knew would one-day come. From Geohazards International‘s estimations:

  • More than half of the city’s bridges would be heavily damaged.
  • The entire water system, sewer system, telephone system, and electric power system would be disabled.
  • Six in ten buildings would be seriously damaged. The city has seven fire engine brigades.
  • The homeless would number somewhere around seven hundred thousand.
  • Deaths would number somewhere around forty thousand. The dead in Nepal are usually cremated. Each cremation uses more than a ton of wood.
  • Injuries would number in the hundreds of thousands. Kathmandu has about 2100 hospital beds in twelve hospitals. Half of these would be unavailable due to damage (actually 80%). Kathmandu has 700 doctors.
  • The airport is almost surrounded by land subject to liquefaction. This would seriously hamper the arrival of outside aid.

And this is 8 years out of date, before Kathmandu’s real urban expansion really kicked in. For instance, according to a friend, Kathmandu’s last working fire engine gave up the ghost recently. But as others have pointed out, fire engines would probably be trapped in their fire station behind jammed doors, and the roads will either be broken or covered in rubble.

As another guy I know put it, “When the earthquake hits, it will be every man for himself,” meaning the government will not be there to help in any meaningful way, shape or form. He is busy building a steel cage inside one room of his house. It is interesting to wonder how society will deal with the situation too. Will there be a kind of connecting ‘wartime spirit’, or will it descend into anarchy. I hope for the former, but given what I have seen of people’s behaviour here, I am assuming the latter.

So, given the enormity of the impending situation, what is being done in terms of preparedness? As far as I understand, a lot of groups are doing a lot, but when the day comes, and the weeks and months after the day, all the preparation will have had little impact. I should be sure of my facts before making sweeping statements, but, sadly, I would bet everything I have on being right. Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado wrote more generally about earthquakes and big cities: “We know where the problems are. We know what to do. We know how to fix it. We just need the political will.” And there is a great shortage of that here.

And to finish off this depressing post, it is worth considering the chances of it happening:

Nepal ranks eleventh on the list of nations at risk from earthquakes. Of all the cities in the world, Kathmandu faces the highest risk, according to seismographic studies.

People say it is a small world, and then refuse to walk anywhere beyond the corner shop. It’s a very big world. And on this very big world, I am living in the city slated to be the next to be turned to rubble. It has taken a long time for this fact to dawn on me.

If we accept that another Big One will strike Kathmandu within twenty years, then for every day you spend in Nepal you have a 1-in-7300 chance of being there at the wrong time. If you stay for ten days, which is probably less than the average for most Western tourists, that gives you a 1-in-730 chance of being there.  If lotteries operated with that kind of odds, a lot more people would be buying tickets. If one in 730 airplane flights crashed (or one in 730 passengers died, which is the same thing), there would be fewer frequent fliers.

Very worth reading this post from Seth Sicroff – it’s well informed and also depressing, but at least it has got some pictures.

So you’d imagine the earthquake would be on everybody’s lips and preventative actions and drills would be happening everywhere. In another post I might wonder about why that seems not to be the case.

So preparation. Tomorrow is Holi so no chance I will be going outside of the house. Monday is shopping for knife, muesli bars, a strong water bottle, a torch (I have) and iodine tablets for water purification and a lighter. Then it’s to the British Embassy with a copy of my passport and longitude and latitude of the flat.

Next steps? visit http://www.eqknepal.com/ or this Facebook group.