Could Nepal Earthquake’s Death Toll Be Minimised? Absolutely, But …

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Apr 27 2015
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Nepal’s death toll from a Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake has jumped to more than 3,729 with official figure for the injured stands at 6,944 (and counting). UNICEF estimates close to a million children have been “severely affected” by the disaster. The earthquake, the worst in the country since 1934 when 10,000 died, has made hundreds of thousands of Nepalese sleeping out in tents or simply in the open.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Map and Past Quakes

The massive quake was quite a bizarre incident, considering that it was just a week ago that about 50 earthquake and social scientists from around the world came to Kathmandu, Nepal, to figure out how to prepare the congested area for the big one. In short, the geologists, seismologists and whatnot knew another earthquake would happen, but didn’t expect it to happen so fast.


It’s true that nobody can stop such a quake from happening. It was a natural disaster. But experts believe what have killed the thousands was not the quake, but rather consequences that were man-made. It’s the buildings, in this case overdeveloped and shoddily built, that kill most of the people, not the earthquake. In fact, Kathmandu, which had experienced four major quake in the last 205 years, excluding this one, was earlier warned.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Buddha Statue

Back in 1934, a magnitude 8.2 quake had killed more than 10,000 in Kathmandu. They knew about the problem, but with 1.5 million people living in the valley, not to mention the mind-boggling 6.5% population growth, the Nepalese government didn’t know how and where to start. And there were air quality, water quality, pollution, poverty, traffic and tons other problems that have gotten the priorities, compared to earthquakes.


Nevertheless, the deadly Nepal earthquake has triggered a mad rush from scientists thousands of miles away, in the United States. Scientists are warning that oil and gas drilling is causing hundreds upon hundreds of earthquakes across the U.S. Prior to the Nepal’s quake, the oil and gas industry has generally argued that any such link requires further study, obviously due to profits reason.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Before and After - 1

But seriously, could the Nepal’s death toll be minimised? Absolutely. Although Oklahoma state geologists have successfully established that earthquake activity in the state in 2013 was 70 times greater than it was before 2008, the U.S. authorities can afford to drag their feet, pretending as if nothing would happen. And it’s not hard to understand why. Unlike Nepal, America has the most advanced early-warning system in place.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Before and After - 2

Besides US, other countries which have such systems are Japan, Mexico, with California’s state-run ShakeAlert to be the world’s most advanced. The system consist of stations housing seismometers that can detect P-waves, non-destructive waves produced by an earthquake, that travel through Earth’s crust faster than S-waves, the ones that shake the ground.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Early Warning System - P-Wave and S-Wave

Once P-waves reach a seismic station, the information is transmitted via phone lines, modems or satellite to laboratories. There, computers deploy advanced algorithms to calculate the origin and magnitude of the earthquake that generated the waves. As an example, ShakeAlert gave the San Francisco Bay Area 5-to-10 seconds notice when the 2014 Napa earthquake hit.


The Japanese early-warning system was specifically designed to send alerts to computers, and other relevant authorities when an earthquake is powerful enough to crack walls. When the 2011 Tohoku quake struck and triggered a tsunami which caused a nuclear accident at Fukushima, thousands of lives were saved because bullet trains, nuclear reactors, and factories which were linked to the system had already been shut down automatically.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Victim in Ashes

If only Nepal has such systems in place, thousands of lives could potentially be saved. So, why wasn’t it being deployed? The answer – money. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated last year that the capital investment costs for an early warning system for the entire west coast of the United States would total US$38.3 million (£25.3 million, RM136 million). But that’s not the only costs Nepal government has to worry.


The annual maintenance and operations alone would burn a hole to the tune of US$16 million (£10.6 million, RM57 million). That’s boatload of money for Nepal, a country which per capita GDP stood at merely US$694 (£459, RM2,472) in 2013, compared to neighbouring India (US$1,497, £990, RM5,333) and China (US$6,807, £4,500, RM24,252) respectively.

Nepal 2015 Earthquake - Victims Situation

Money aside, people in Kathmandu would have had 15-to-20 seconds warning, if they have such systems in place. The seconds of early-warning could have been enough for people to take cover under tables or even escape some collapsing buildings. But that’s water under the bridge now. Now, the economic costs of the devastating Nepal earthquake could be as much as US$5 billion, about 20% of the country’s GDP.


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