Earthquake engineers often say earthquakes don’t kill people, collapsing buildings do. The tragic loss of life that followed the huge earthquake in Nepal on April 25 occurred despite the fact that the country is among the world’s leaders in community-based efforts to reduce disaster risk. But poverty, corruption, and poor governance have all led to a failure to enforce building codes – as has a shortage of skilled engineers, planners and architects.
Sadly the country was on its way to deploying knowledge and skills to tackle its long-term vulnerability just as the ground shook.
So why aren’t more buildings designed to withstand shaking – even extreme shaking.
To keep buildings standing, it is essential to have adequate building and planning codes, as well as proper training and certification for professionals such as engineers, architects, and planners. But having certification and codes on paper does not ensure implementation or compliance. Nepal does, after all, have some of these things. Laws and regulations must also be monitored and enforced. That is not easy in a country such as Nepal, which has isolated villages, a history of conflict and many governance difficulties.
Financial as well as social resources are needed to set up earthquake resistant buildings. Governments at all levels need to be functioning and competent in order to engage with processes such as urban planning and earthquake-resistant construction. Citizens must trust and have the opportunity to work with their governments, including the law enforcement and judicial sectors.
It’s not just about buildings. Many non-structural measures are needed to ensure survivability in earthquakes. Appliances such as televisions, microwaves, hot water boilers, and refrigerators (which do not always exist in Nepalese homes) must be securely fastened to the floors and the walls. Otherwise, they move and topple, killing as readily as building collapse. Even in affluent earthquake-prone locations such as New Zealand and California, we see shockingly low rates of households enacting these basic measures.