A deadly earthquake struck the beautiful nation Nepal last Saturday, followed by the continuous roils of seemingly endless aftershocks, claiming thousands of lives. While the earth moved suddenly, and violently, walls tumbled, trees swayed, power lines came crashing down, and large cracks opened up on streets and walls, and lives were buried. The earth heaved, and the tears of an entire nation diffused into the icy cold wind of the Mount Everest. And since then, the survivors have been spending days and nights on the open streets under the chilly Himalayan skies.
Amidst the media reporting the catastrophic incident, is the outpouring of the term "natural disaster." However, there is an inherent flaw in using the term "natural" to explain the disaster that unfolded. Because, more than the country's violent geology, the "disaster" that took place was largely dependent on the choices made about the usage of land, and how the cities and buildings were built . It is intrinsically linked to the failures of social protection systems, and safety nets to help people overcome such tragedies and cope. This is a classic example of how precariousness can be systematically materialized through our cities, governments, financial systems, and development policies.
Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the region, has been undergoing rapid urbanization for some time. The population of Kathmandu itself grows by 6.5 percent each year. In Kathmandu, more than a million people are crammed inside the city. People live in hastily built structures that lack adequate protection from hazards such as earthquakes. There are many buildings built within the city, without adhering to safety codes. Evidently, the city's fast expansions haven't been planned or regulated. Also, in rural areas, satellite towns have mushroomed without much planning from the government.
(2013 World Bank report)
Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to rapid and uncontrolled sprawl; irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing development; loss of open space, and decreased livability. It has also increased vulnerability to disasters, making Kathmandu one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world
Therefore, referring to the combination of ultra-high population densities, negligent building regulations and unsteady constructions, Professor James Jackson of University of Cambridge says, "its buildings that kill people not earthquakes"
In Nepal, a country plagued by poverty and political instability, earthquake preparedness has not become a top priority. Efforts to plan resilient cities have been hampered and fallen short inevitably by the attempts to meet day-to-day necessities of the poor. This is accompanied by political gridlock. This is why when we look into poverty, we should not only pay attention to those who live below the poverty line or $1.25 per day, but also take into account the near poor, those who live on the margins, vulnerable to fall into poverty if setbacks (such as natural hazards, financial calamities, political instabilities, fluctuations in food prices, violent conflicts) occur.
Quoting, Prof. Jackson, "...what happened is exactly what we thought would happen".
To put it more bluntly, what happened in Nepal was man-made, and was a nightmare waiting to happen.