Seismologist Brian Tucker, the founder and president of the nonprofit GeoHazards International (GHI), has worked in Nepal and elsewhere to help retrofit buildings, prepare communities for earthquake risks, and develop disaster mitigation strategies.
In this second in a two-part interview with Eos, Tucker discusses GHI’s efforts and his own reaction to the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal on 25 April. The earthquake caused more than 7200 fatalities and more than 14,000 injuries, displaced about 2.8 million people, and destroyed more than 190,000 houses, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Part 1 of the interview focused on lessons that can be learned from the earthquake.
Eos: You have been involved with hazard mitigation efforts in Nepal and elsewhere for a long time. What were your initial reactions—your thoughts and feelings, personally and professionally—to this earthquake?
BT: A swirling flood of complex, even contradictory, emotions: validation because our warnings of great damage were proven warranted; sickness, bordering on nausea, seeing our loss estimates on paper become flesh and blood; satisfaction that our work—and that of our Nepali partners—probably saved lives; and some hint of guilt that we could have pushed harder.
Eos: GHI has a long history of working in Nepal. Can you briefly describe your current and past projects there?
BT: In the mid-1990s we started working with the National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal (NSET), which was at that time an organization on paper only. With NSET and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, we developed an earthquake scenario that described the expected consequences on modern day Kathmandu of a repeat of the 1934 magnitude 8.0 Bihar earthquake.
Then, working with a collection of about 60 local stakeholders and international earthquake professionals, we developed an action plan of how to reduce those consequences, assuming that we had 20 years to prepare before the next damaging earthquake. As it turned out, we had only 17 years. This action plan became the first strategic plan for NSET, which has grown into a thriving organization.
To accomplish something tangible, we also launched some demonstration projects, including the inauguration of an annual Nepal Earthquake Safety Day, held each year on 15 January. We also conducted a seismic retrofit of one school—simultaneously training local masons.
My daughter returned to this village 10 years later, with an NSET engineer, and surveyed construction undertaken in the village since our retrofit project. The vast majority, about four-fifths, of all this construction employed at least one of the earthquake-resistant construction features introduced in the retrofitted school.
In recent years, we’ve conducted some evaluations of Kathmandu hospitals.
Basically, NSET is doing a great job and hasn’t needed our help.
Eos: What is your overall approach to earthquake risk reduction, and what concrete ways to prevent disaster serve as your guiding principles when starting a new project?
A community will reduce its risk of earthquakes when a trusted peer shows that the community’s risk is unacceptably large—e.g., its children are at significant risk of dying—and demonstrates an affordable, socially acceptable, and verifiable method to reduce that risk. The concrete ways we do this are to raise awareness of risk and risk mitigation options, build local capacity, develop public policies and strengthen critical infrastructure, and promote preparedness and prevention.
Eos: You stated in a 2013 Science magazine article that despite many efforts, “human and economic losses due to earthquakes are increasing and are projected to continue to rise in the future” and that “risk creation is outpacing risk reduction.” Why is this happening?
BT: The facts. The past decade (2001 to 2012) saw more than 3 times as many earthquake-related deaths as the preceding 2 decades (1981 to 2000). Factors such as poverty, lack of urban planning, poor construction, and rapid urbanization in earthquake-prone developing countries all increase risk.
Eos: GeoHazards International has put a great deal of emphasis on the need to retrofit schools and develop ways that communities can address earthquake safety in schools. Why this emphasis on schools?
BT: As one friend of ours puts it, school earthquake safety is the entry drug to earthquake risk reduction. Strengthening schools is politically popular. If you were mayor, would you rather propose an increase in taxes to retrofit schools or to fill potholes?
Also, we try to leverage the fact that since most governments compel children to sit in schools that were designed and constructed by the government, governments have the responsibility to make these schools safe. Schools can also provide community shelters following disasters. Plus, if you educate kids in school about the nature of earthquakes and how their consequences can be reduced, they’ll take these lessons home and into their adult lives.
In 2008, I went back to the village where NSET and GHI worked in 1998 and asked the 8th grade students what caused earthquakes and what we can do to reduce their effects. The improvement in understanding was tremendous: They know about plate tectonics! Some of the kids we taught back in 1998 are now 30 years old, perhaps wondering about the seismic safety of their kids’ schools.
Eos: A strong piece of your efforts involves community engagement. What specific methods for community engagement have you found to work best?
BT: We try to identify a local champion who truly wants our help. We find someone who was fired up about reducing risk in her community before we arrived, and then we figure out how we can help her do a better job. Our backing lends some kind of credibility locally. Thus, the method is to help local earthquake risk managers do what they’d been trying to do before we arrived.
Eos: Are there any issues—cultural, political, economic, etc.—specific to Nepal that have made your efforts to help ensure earthquake preparedness easy or difficult?
BT: The political instability since the assassination of King Birendra in 2001 slowed work. The culture that “the future is written” makes it difficult to convince people that they can and should change their fate. I’ve even been accused of blasphemy by proposing to change when and how God plans to end our lives.
Eos: Do you know how retrofitted buildings, including the hospitals your organization reinforced, were affected by the earthquake?
BT: We’ve heard that the schools NSET retrofitted performed well, but we don’t yet know what ground motion they were subjected to or if nearby schools that were not retrofitted performed poorly. I read one report that up to 5000 schools nationwide collapsed, which would have been a real tragedy if the earthquake hadn’t been on a Saturday. We’ll have to investigate, but only after relief operations are over.
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer
Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Reducing earthquake risk in Nepal, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO029479. Published on 7 May 2015.