Nepal Earthquake Deaths: Blame Weak, Corrupt Politicians

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Relatives sit next to the funeral pyre of a victim of Saturday’s earthquake, along a river in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 27, 2015. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Nepal's devastating earthquake, with over 4,000 dead, was a disaster waiting to happen, as was widely noted over the weekend.

This small and impoverished country of 28 million people lies in a prime earthquake zone—international experts were in Kathmandu just over a week ago, predicting an imminent disaster. And it happened in a city with a population of over 1 million that is crammed with vulnerable old structures, many new buildings that have been inadequately designed and badly constructed, and masses of shantytown slums.

Sadly, with variations, this story of imminent catastrophe applies across South Asia. Hundreds of potential disasters have been created by the pressure of growing populations and expanding economies, plus a disregard for natural and man-made environmental dangers and the behavior of weak and corrupt governments that fail to tackle problems that everyone knows about.

In Nepal, the story has been building up for decades, confounding international aid agencies and others that have tried to tackle social, environmental and other challenges.

When I first visited Nepal 30 years ago, I wrote in the Financial Times that "deep-rooted corruption siphons off a large proportion of international aid and cripples the country's economic growth and public administration." Members of the now-ousted royal family were heading the plunder, and one aid worker told me the leakages were so dire that his country would provide only equipment, not money.

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Earthquake victims lie inside an Indian Air Force helicopter as they are evacuated from Trishuli Bazar to the airport in Kathmandu on April 27, 2015. Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

Since then, Nepal, which is a buffer state between India and China, has been racked by relentless political instability, a Maoist uprising and civil war. Governments have not even been able to begin to tackle macroeconomic development, let alone the intractable problems that made the earthquake and its aftershocks so serious.

The good news is the way that international help was quickly mobilized over the weekend. India led the way within hours of the quake, flying in supplies and support teams in an operation personally led by Narendra Modi, the prime minister who showed, perhaps for the first time since he was elected a year ago, his ability to swing a cumbersome government machine into immediate action.

The earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, had been forecast to happen because it is 80 years since the last such disaster, which demolished large areas of Kathmandu and killed over 17,000 people.

It is the result of the Indian tectonic plate moving northward at a rate of five centimeters a year into central Asia and the Eurasian plate. Originally, this threw up the Himalayan mountain range, and the fault line has triggered a series of quakes, most recently in Kashmir in 2005, when over 70,000 people were killed in Pakistan and neighboring countries.

Just a week ago, 50 earthquake scientists from around the world met in Kathmandu to discuss how the area would cope with such a disaster. "Physically and geologically, what happened is exactly what we thought would happen," seismologist James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at Cambridge University, told the Daily Mail. "I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was, and I thought at the time that the area was heading for trouble," said Jackson, lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, a group that tries to help Asian cities prepare for disasters.

There is, of course, extreme grief in Nepal, and across the world, for those who were killed, and concern for those who have been injured or not yet found. Government ministers join in the expressions of sorrow and pledges to provide aid, but it often seems that life in this region is not valued highly. Little is done, once the crisis has passed, beyond slowly rebuilding people's lives, their homes and places of work.

Public services are allowed to decay, and there is scant concern for public safety. Two years ago, there were some 6,000 deaths when devastating floods hit the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, adjacent to Nepal.

The floods were caused by torrential rain, but they were exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many settlements had been built next to the rivers in blatant violation of corruptly administered environmental laws. But little or nothing has been done in the past two years to improve the situation.

The Nepalese are a sturdy, strong people and they will rebuild their lives, haphazardly. But they have little opportunity to plan further than their immediate needs. The sort of action taken by, for example, Japan to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes is beyond what most can even dream about.

That, then, is the challenge for international aid agencies, and for Modi as the head of Nepal's largest neighbor. From Afghanistan across to Bhutan and Bangladesh and down into India, a new approach is needed to handle natural disasters and, in particular, to try to ensure that buildings can withstand earthquakes.

That is a huge challenge for governments. But in India it is just the sort of thing that Modi was elected to achieve, by making government work.

John Elliott is the author of IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India). This article first appeared at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.

Nepal Earthquake Deaths: Blame Weak, Corrupt Politicians | Opinion