Nepal: a country ill-prepared for disaster

From our home on the third floor of a modern apartment building in southern Kathmandu a quick exit was never an option, so when my partner and I felt the rumbling begin we followed the plan we had agreed to on arrival in Nepal some nine months earlier, and dived under a table. From this dubious vantage point we sat out the next minute or so of violent shakes, massive swaying, and occasional crashes as all manner of objects around the flat were flung to the floor.

My overriding feeling – other than sheer terror, and astonishment at how much a solid building can bend and wobble – was of being hugely disconcerted. When the earth beneath your feet is no longer reliable, what hope is there for anything else?

We eventually made our escape and, seeing surprisingly few signs of damage in the immediate area, took our place among the crowds seeking safety on a pretty roundabout that provides a rare parcel of open space.

This spot felt secure, and aside from occasional aftershocks and an unhelpful rumour spreading through the crowd that a tiger had escaped from the nearby zoo, we passed the rest of the afternoon peace.

As news filtered in it became clear that many others in the Kathmandu valley and beyond had not been so fortunate. The traditional brick architecture of this region simply does not provide adequate structural strength to deal with major earth movements, and the sheer density of the structures in the older parts of the city means that even outside areas are unsafe.

People sleep outside on a street a in Kathmandu following the earthquake (EPA)

Even at this early stage, a depressingly predictable pattern appears to have emerged whereby traditional masonry buildings have failed far more easily than modern concrete-framed ones, leading to many hundreds of deaths.

Despite the widespread adoption of concrete in new constructions, the great fear has remained that patchy enforcement of building codes would render even modern buildings unsuited to earthquakes. On Saturday those fears seem not to have been realised, with much of the modern city surviving relatively unscathed.

This has been a major disaster, but not the absolute catastrophe some would have predicted. The drab concrete that many visitors feel has robbed the city of its charm may just have saved thousands of lives.

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