Commentary / World

The harsh lessons of Nepal's quake disaster

by Pankaj Mishra


In October 1991 I was in the Garhwal Himalayas when an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale killed more than a thousand people and flattened tens of thousands of houses. Since that experience, I have lived in my Himalayan village in fearful anticipation of the “big one” — the massive earthquake long predicted in this seismically unstable zone.

In periodic nightmares, I see entire hillsides, fecklessly deforested and covered with cement, collapsing into the deep valley. The heartbreaking images from Nepal, a country that has grown familiar and cherished over several visits, rekindle that fear.

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal last weekend was far from being the big one. Still, it reportedly killed more than 4,000 people, and damaged large parts of Kathmandu. Since news from the rural parts of the country, where millions live precariously, has been scarce, the true scale of the devastation is yet unknown.

Nepal, which has barely emerged from a decade of political and economic instability, urgently needs extensive and long-term support, especially in its remote regions. News reports of the earthquake that refer to the poverty of the Nepalese risk presenting them as passive and helpless. In fact, the Nepalese, who have lived through multiple disasters and tragedies, have repeatedly shown themselves to be one of the most resilient and resourceful peoples on Earth.

Many of them now need basic tools — food, water, shelter, medication — to survive the earthquake’s aftermath, rebuild their shattered lives, and make themselves less vulnerable to natural disaster. Already, the impressively diverse Nepalese diaspora, which extends across the world, has started to pool its resources. Canadian charities have been especially active. Japan, with its extensive experience on earthquake management, has announced several relief measures.

India and China, Nepal’s big neighbors, ought to take the lead in international rescue efforts, optimizing their physical proximity to the worst affected regions. More importantly, the Nepalese themselves should control the process and ensure the equitable redistribution of aid.

Our thoughts should be with the victims of the earthquake, and our philanthropic impulses directed to those seeking to help them. Still, it is not too early to draw necessary lessons for the way many of us live now in the Himalayas, and what we can do about it.

Earthquakes plainly lie beyond the control of human beings. Yet the vast spectacle of suffering they reveal should make us ask larger questions of our actions.

The earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 that killed more than 60,000 people was a landmark event in a Europe where the old social order built around Christian belief was in decline. Voltaire seized upon the death of innocents as proof that an omnipotent and all-merciful God did not exist. No less polemically, Rousseau stressed, in his response to the Enlightenment philosopher, the responsibility of human beings: for instance, the 20,000 six- or seven-story houses built close together in Lisbon. Kant also criticized the city’s urban planning.

We don’t have to endorse any of these philosophers to recognize that the debate about natural disasters long ago shifted from belief in providential acts and fatalism to rational assessment of human vulnerability and risk management. Still, nearly three centuries after the reign of reason formally began, the human role in natural catastrophes is insufficiently acknowledged, and even contemptuously ignored.

In June 2013, flash floods and landslides in the state of Uttarakhand killed more than 6,000 people (many of them migrant Nepalese laborers). This was another sign that the vast Himalayan region, subject to relentless tectonic shifts, and undermined by deforestation and reckless construction as well as global warming, is increasingly prone to catastrophe.

In a comprehensive report for Oxfam last year, the veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra called the disaster “a warning bell for the economic growth model being pursued in all the Himalayan states.” “Himalayan mountains,” he wrote, “are too fragile to sustain rapid and intensive development. … Ecologically sustainable development is the basic necessary condition for disaster mitigation.”

Yet I look out from my window to see new, hastily built and visibly fragile apartment buildings scattering the hillside in clear breach of every possible environment and safety regulation. In this Himalayan valley it is easy to envision a very bleak landscape when the big one strikes.

Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, divides his time between London and Mashobra, a village in the Himalayan foothills in India. He is the author of, among other books, “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”

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