Shaken in the mountains
SEISMOLOGISTS, politicians and ordinary residents of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, have long feared a big earthquake striking the sprawling city. It lies within a bowl-shaped valley, and as the population has poured off the fields over the years (hurried along by a decade of civil war), Kathmandu has swollen. Shoddy concrete buildings, narrow alleys and few building standards—combined with prevalent corruption among inspectors—meant the city was at risk. Over 5m people cram in and around Kathmandu.
On April 25th a big (magnitude 7.9) earthquake hit, striking 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west of the city. As far away as Delhi, India’s capital, windows rattled and water sloshed in jugs, and the metro service was suspended. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said his country would send rescue teams and assistance. A Nepalese minister, Minendra Rijal, spoke of enormous damage and called for help from international agencies. By the evening the police had confirmed over 1,000 deaths. The last quake of such size to hit the region, in Sichuan in south-west China in 2008, killed 90,000.
A resident in Kathmandu, speaking moments after the first shock, spoke of watching buildings collapse; older buildings proved the most vulnerable. A symbol of the city, the Dharahara tower, an eight-storey step tower constructed in 1832, was toppled. In Patan Square, a historic site in the centre of the city, monuments that have long drawn pilgrims and tourists were reduced to rubble. The Kathmandu valley is on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, with scores of brick and timber palaces and Buddhist temples dating back to the 15th century. A 72-year-old man said the earthquake was the strongest he had ever felt: “It was what everyone was afraid of.” It is unclear how many people are trapped beneath the rubble.
Earthquakes are common in or near the Himalayas, where the Indian tectonic plate pushes five centimetres north a year, coming up against the Eurasian plate. In Nepal the last quake of similar magnitude was in 1934. Seventy or 80 years appears typical between big earthquakes. The quake’s hypocentre was relatively shallow, about 11km below the surface, exacerbating the ground-shaking, says David Rothery, a professor of geosciences at Britain’s Open University. Without the bedrock in the mountains, the impact of the earthquake in the silt plains of southern Nepal and northern India may have been even worse, he says.
The quake triggered an avalanche on Everest, burying part of a base camp used by climbers and killing at least eight people. Given the remoteness of many settlements in Nepal, it is likely that reports of death and destruction will take days to be heard.
Anticipating big earthquakes, foreign aid donors have provided funds and expertise in helping to prepare Kathmandu, for instance, by strengthening schools and hospitals. But Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and suffers from prolonged political dysfunction. No sustained efforts have been made to protect people against earthquakes, including earthquake education and preparedness.
There is scope for regional help, and Mr Modi, whose country is closely allied with Nepal, looks inclined to offer leadership. Nepal recently hosted a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, at which national leaders pledged that barriers between countries should be reduced and greater help given across borders. This earthquake is an early test of whether such words will be met with action.