The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that shook Nepal on 25 April caused more than 7200 fatalities and more than 14,000 injuries. In addition, it displaced 2.8 million people and damaged infrastructure in Kathmandu and other parts of the country.
Eos interviewed Brian Tucker, MacArthur Fellow and founder and president of the nonprofit GeoHazards International (GHI), for his perspectives about this earthquake and about hazard mitigation efforts in general. GHI helps vulnerable communities across the world to better prepare for natural hazards such as earthquakes by emphasizing mitigation strategies, guiding communities through retrofits, and building local capacity to manage risk.
The first part of the interview, published here, focuses on the lessons that Tucker thinks geoscientists, decision makers, politicians, and the general public can learn from this earthquake. Part two, set to publish later this week, will focus on GHI’s efforts and Tucker’s response to the Nepal earthquake.
Eos: Geoscientists can look at disasters such as the Nepal earthquake and feel that their efforts—to better understand earthquakes and their consequences, to warn people of risks—are futile. What message do you have for geoscientists?
BT: The need for geoscientists to provide information about seismic risk and risk reduction options is critically important but, most curiously, is underrated by disaster risk professionals and, I suspect, also by geoscientists. Few disaster risk professionals have information about the human and economic losses their communities can expect as a result of probable earthquakes, or information about how to reduce these losses.
Having this information would help them acquire needed resources and design appropriate programs. The geoscientists’ and engineers’ responsibility in this process is to translate scientific and engineering advances into language the risk managers and the public can use.
A few years ago, GHI’s Justin Moresco, with sociology professor Lori Peek of Colorado State University, conducted a survey of more than 100 disaster risk professionals, from government, business, health care, education, and grassroots organizations, in 11 cities—rich and poor, big and small—around the world. We wanted to learn about the barriers they faced when trying to improve earthquake safety in their cities.
The barrier ranked number 1 was “lack of funding.” “Lack of earthquake information” came in a distant number 6. When we asked these people, however, if they had information about, for example, the human and economic losses their community could expect from a likely earthquake, they said they did not but they would very much like such information.
How could they possibly expect to get the funding needed to reduce earthquake risk if they didn’t know—and make known—what losses their communities could expect? How could earthquake risk reduction compete successfully against other challenges facing these communities if the consequences of earthquakes were not known? I suspect that most geoscientists don’t realize the importance of providing basic risk information; we may think we’re communicating if we publish in our professional journals.
Eos: What should geoscientists be doing now and in the future related to this particular earthquake and regarding earthquakes in general? And what would you suggest are some of the key understandings that Earth scientists can gain from this earthquake and its aftershocks?
BT: People doing research can answer some of these questions better than I. Based on what I’ve heard, geoscientists have already learned new, important information about Himalayan tectonics, for example, the relationship among the 1505, 1255, 1833, and 1934 earthquakes and the apparent lack of ground rupture.
But I’ll give you my answer, which is undoubtedly different from that of card-carrying research scientists: We learned that we already know enough about seismic risk in the Himalayas. What happened in Nepal is just what we expected. Earth scientists and earthquake engineers can see perfectly what will happen to multistory, unreinforced masonry buildings with soft first stories when they are subjected to the ground motions that any city in the Himalayas can expect.
This is not obvious to the normal government official or the lay public. Given this, geoscientists and engineers are obliged, in my opinion, to tell the government officials and the residents of those buildings of their risk and their options.
Eos: Likewise, is there an opportunity for structural engineers and others—including psychologists and social scientists—to also gain key understandings from this earthquake? If yes, how so?
BT: For me, the lesson of GeoHazards International’s two decades plus of work around the world is that we geoscientists and earthquake engineers need help accelerating the application of current Earth science and earthquake engineering research into practice. The problem is not primarily a scientific or engineering one: A great local NGO [nongovernmental organization] and even an effective government of a developing country, facing all their other challenges, cannot by themselves reduce risk faster than today’s rapid rural-to-urban migration is increasing the risk.
We need the help of psychologists, social scientists, and advertising gurus to use the techniques they’ve developed in successful public health campaigns, like those to stop smoking, drunk driving, and unsafe sex.
In addition, I’d like to see that the international development organizations that will fund the reconstruction of Nepal insist that construction employ modern building codes, that funds are allocated for inspection, and that all buildings thus constructed have some kind of plaque that designates them as “earthquake resistant.” (One would need a Plaque Police to guard against counterfeits.) These plaques would raise awareness of and demand for earthquake-resistant construction in future buildings. That’s what’s missing now. Even more ambitious, given the enormity of the reconstruction needs, I would like to involve Nepal’s reconstruction architects, engineers, and masons from nearby regions, like Assam and Bhutan. They should see firsthand what happened and learn how to prevent this in their own communities.
Eos: The public can look at disasters such as this and feel powerless to do anything. What message do you have for the public?
BT: Educate yourself about your community’s seismic risk and risk reduction options and then advocate for mitigation actions. Reward merchants who have earthquake-resistant buildings with your business; hold public officials accountable for constructing schools and hospitals to be resistant to future earthquakes.
For me, by far the toughest question is: “How can GeoHazards International, with its limited human and financial resources, do the most good in response to the Nepal earthquake?” Should we use our knowledge of Kathmandu and the funding that is materializing to join the efforts of others to help Nepal respond and reconstruct, or should we try to raise support from other sources and to go to, for example, Assam and Bhutan, “the next Nepals,” and help them prepare for what is coming?
Eos: Have you faced any obstacles from local governments? Do you have any tips or lessons learned in dealing with local governments?
BT: I remember one Nepali high official who became angry at me when he realized, as a result of our study, how vulnerable Kathmandu was: “What do you expect me to do? Rebuild our entire city?”
In general, however, local government officials have appreciated our work. I particularly remember and am grateful for the support of Jamil Mahuad, who was the mayor of Quito, Ecuador, in our first project. He made available his staff to help us assess the vulnerability of his city and make recommendations on how to reduce the risk. He chaired the Social and Economic Advisory Committee of our project and thereby lent us his political clout. And at the end, he held a press conference to announce the project’s findings.
I learned from him that we must discover political incentives to implement our recommendations. Mayor Mahuad took a risk by trusting us to behave responsibly (no news leaks), and he showed his courage to publicize the risk faced by his city, once it was known. Subsequently he was elected president of Ecuador.
Eos: What are the lessons from the Nepal earthquake for politicians and decision makers, whether they are in rich or poor countries?
BT: Nepali politicians and decision makers will learn that the earthquake’s human and economic costs are huge and recovery will be long—probably much larger and longer than they expected. I suspect that these losses will be in line with those estimated in the earthquake scenario we developed for Kathmandu in 1999.
I would hope that these politicians and decision makers will also realize that those costs would have been greater were it not for the preparedness and mitigation efforts of the local NGO National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal (NSET). We need to wait, however, for a careful evaluation of the actual savings as a result of NSET’s work; this can take place only after the relief activities are complete.
Nepalese leaders should know by now that larger earthquakes do and will occur in the region. I hope that Indian and Bhutanese politicians and decision makers are now asking themselves, “How will our communities fare when our earthquake strikes, and what can we do now to reduce the costs?”
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer
Editor’s Note: Watch for the second part of this interview later this week on Eos.org.
Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), What can we learn about disaster preparedness from Nepal’s quake?, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO029415. Published on 5 May 2015.