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Nepal: The disaster everyone knew was coming

A Nepalese family collects belongings from their home destroyed in Saturday's earthquake, in Bhaktapur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

If you asked any disaster relief worker last week what calamity worried them most, an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, would have garnered a lot of mentions. The combination of a fault line ready to go and a densely settled region short on disaster safeguards added up to a deeply concerning scenario.

“The one I fear most is an earthquake in Kathmandu Valley. It is one of the catastrophic hot spots in the world where we are waiting for it to happen,” said disaster risk relations expert Jo Scheuer of the United Nations Development Program to the Global Dispatches podcast in 2013.

In his worst-case scenario, a earthquake similar to the one that struck Haiti in 2010 would kill hundreds of thousands of people in the valley and cut off access to the region. Scheuer pointed out that Haiti at least benefits from sea access if its airport is destroyed, Nepal has few alternative options.

And the data backed up the concerns about Nepal. A recent report from Geohazards International analyzed earthquake risk around the world. It found that urban earthquakes in developing countries were an increasing concern. Chief among them was Kathmandu.

“A person living in Kathmandu is about nine times more likely to be killed by an earthquake than a person living in Islamabad and about 60 times more likely than a person living in Tokyo,” said the report. “According to the preliminary results, a school child in Kathmandu is 400 times more likely to be killed by an earthquake than a school child in Kobe and 30 times more likely than a school child in Tashkent.”

Even the formerly U.N.-funded news agency IRIN ran a story two years ago imagining the impact of such an event. It detailed how things would progress and ended with a death toll of 380,000.

The fears became reality on Saturday when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the valley, less than 50 miles from the capital city of Kathmandu. While not reaching the dire predictions Scheuer feared, the devastation is vast.

By the latest count, more than 3,800 people are dead. But that number continues to grow and is expected to continue in the coming days. More than 5,500 people were injured and millions are affected. The number of children affected alone exceeds 1 million, said the U.N. Children’s Fund.

The earthquake wrought upheaval to a region already roiled by poverty and poor infrastructure, argued Oxfam’s deputy head of humanitarian policy and campaigns Shaheen Chughtai in the Guardian.

“But it’s not just its violent geology that made Kathmandu fundamentally flawed. More than a million people are crammed inside it. Even before this latest earthquake, half of Nepal’s 28 million population didn’t have access to improved sanitation and lived below the poverty line, around one in three of them in severe poverty,” he wrote.

Nepali civil society, the government and the international community are all working to respond to the earthquake crisis. World Vision says its staff was able to reach Gorkha, a hard-to-access area near the epicenter of the quake. Oxfam is beginning safe water and food distributions.

“We are managing to reach out to people in Kathmandu, but it is extremely difficult to provide support on a larger scale to the most-affected areas – a lot of the main roads have been damaged,” said Cecilia Keizer, Oxfam country director in Nepal, in a news release. “Our staff are still checking on their families and the partners we work with. At the moment, all the death count reports are coming from Kathmandu Valley. Sadly, I fear that this is only the beginning.”

Updates from other groups including Save the Children and the Red Cross tell a similar story. Countless emergency groups are on the ground and doing their best to help people in need.

With the situation fluid, it is still hard to get a sense of the totality of the destruction caused by the quake. It is also too early to know how much efforts by aid groups and governments to prepare for this event helped save lives and mitigate what could have been worse.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]