The earthquake century

Debris of buildings that were damaged during the 7.8-magnitude earthquake litter the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. How cities can prepare for devastating urban tragedies? Photo by: Guido Dingemans / ReSurge International / CC BY-NC-ND

Bumping down a dusty road in remote Ethiopia a year ago, I asked my Nepalese colleague why he had traveled so far to join me on a field visit to see our resilience programs in Africa. The drought-affected landscapes and livestock livelihoods of East Africa were so vastly different from the mountainous, often flooded agricultural valleys of Nepal.

“You can never be prepared enough for disasters. I need to know as much as I can,” Sagar responded.

Based in Kathmandu and the Far Western region of Nepal, Sagar and his teammates are our agency’s leaders on community resilience to floods and landslides. He wanted to know even more about a variety of global best practices on disaster risk reduction, find fresh ideas, and see if he could adapt and apply them to his own context. He was tireless. He asked tough questions of his Ethiopian counterparts; interviewed livestock traders and women business owners; met with insurance and microfinance agents; queried local university researchers on early warning access; and learned about social safety nets and the ability of local governments to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

His greatest worry though was that Nepal’s largest city, Kathmandu, remained wholly unprepared for an inevitable earthquake. In a city where urban growth has outpaced civil capacity for planning and regulation, the apartment buildings were likely to crumble due to unenforced building codes and poor construction practices.

Trade and transportation links would become extremely challenging due to infrastructure limitations — the city relies on one major road out to the broader valley, and the international airport has just one operational runway. To make matters worse, there has been very limited coordination between citizens, civil society, businesses and government agencies to plan, fund and practice together for a harmonized earthquake response.

While early warning systems for weather-related disasters have gained traction in rural areas of Nepal, there were no tested systems in place for handling an urban disaster. Sagar knew that loss of life in a dense city would be large. Lifelines for affected rural communities would be severed. The economic impact for the country would be lasting.

Then, on April 25, I awoke to the chime of a text message: “Massive 7.8 earthquake in Nepal.”  As we confirmed the safety of Mercy Corps’ team members, their families and several visiting staff, the details started rolling in. Major destruction, pancaked buildings, people buried in debris, hospitals overwhelmed, communication disrupted, and many displaced from their homes or too afraid to go inside.

Unfortunately, it is a scenario that we in the disaster relief community have experienced before. From China to Haiti, we have seen firsthand the immediate and long-term destruction caused by earthquakes or other natural disasters, particularly in crowded urban areas, where the poorest citizens usually live in the most vulnerable of circumstances. Alarmingly, as the world grows increasingly urbanized, the devastating power of earthquakes only grows. The United Nations predicts that the world’s urban population will grow by 2.5 billion people by 2050 — with 90 percent of that increase in Asia and Africa. Earthquakes have the power to rip even the largest metropolis apart, and with our cities getting bigger and bigger, increasingly more lives are at risk.

The question has to be asked: How can we plan, prepare and recover from events as massive as these? What enables a neighborhood, a city, a country to minimize their disaster risks, protect their vulnerable populations and recover from disasters?

On the Rockefeller Foundation blog, our colleagues recently offered a primer for how cities can prepare for devastating urban tragedies.

1. Reducing risk and building resilience, particularly for our cities, will require an integrated approach — one working at multiple scales. Cities have complex and interdependent systems for everything from water supplies and waste management to telecommunications and trade. When they fail, there are often unthinkable, cascading consequences.

2. Those who are closest to the impact of disaster must have the knowledge, technical capacity and tools to act — and to act quickly. This requires practiced partnership between public, civil and private sectors, where the incentives for building urban resilience to disasters are aligned and acted upon.

3. Cities are the engines of national economies. On average, cities produce 70-80 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product. Disaster management for cities is integral to the growth targets and economic well-being of entire countries. This is especially acute in Kathmandu, where secondary cities are not well-developed as a safety valve.

4. Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity, and their impact is exacerbated by urbanization. Local stakeholders need to be able to interpret climate information, geological risk analyses, and how scientific data intersects with urbanization issues, such as shifting demographics, adaptive capacities and land use.

5. International frameworks and agreements are critical to building disaster resilience for cities and countries. The intergovernmental disaster agenda will be most effective if it is joined with the climate, urban and post-2015 development goals, all to be refined over the next year.

Sagar himself was working in the Far Western region of the country at the time of the earthquake, helping communities assess and plan for the flooding disasters that will soon come during the rainy season. After three days of tenuous travel on the one road back to the city, he finally returned to his family and colleagues in Kathmandu. His apartment building is still standing, but the world around him has shifted.

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About the author

  • Shannon%2520alexander

    Shannon Alexander

    Shannon Alexander is a senior director of strategic initiatives at Mercy Corps, where she leads the agency's global resilience initiative. Shannon is responsible for Mercy Corps' integration of resilience thinking across its technical sectors and establishing regional hubs to put theory into practice for on-the-ground impact.She combines her private sector experience working in the U.S. and Europe, with 20 years of experience in the development field. She started her development career in Romania, where she was chief of party for a business development program.