After the Massacre of the Royal family, the April 25 earthquake is perhaps the worst tragedy to have shook Nepal. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake took over 7,000 lives (and still counting), and reduced the country’s ancient artifacts, UNESCO heritage sites and countless homes to rubble.
The earthquake also proved to be the deadliest on Mt. Everest’s history, as it triggered an avalanche that killed over 21 climbers. In Langtang valley, near Everest, 250 people were reported missing and the numbers continue to grow even now. In the Gorkha district of Barpar, where the epicenter was, relief efforts took almost a week to arrive, the injured are yet to be evacuated to proper treatment facilities.
Throughout April 25, continued aftershocks occurred right through Nepal and the region. The damage, according to experts, was higher because it was a shallow temblor just 15km below the ground and not much deeper. The earthquake, they said, was a release of built-up pressure that had been accumulating along the major fault line where the Indian (Tibetan) Plate is slowly diving underneath the Eurasian Plate. On the day of the earthquake, Kathmandu – situated on a block of crust about 120 km wide and 60km long – reportedly shifted 10ft to the south in just 30 seconds.
The coming of a large earthquake was well predicted and expected all these years. In 2013, seismologists had warned that there was sufficient accumulated energy along the fault line to produce an 8 magnitude earthquake. When it would happen, they couldn’t say. But, they had made us aware nonetheless. So, it begs the question – how prepared are we for such disasters especially as we sit on the same seismically active zone as Nepal on the Himalayan central thrust? Looking at Nepal, the answer is a definite ‘not at all.’ And the scenario in Bhutan couldn’t be much different.
The tremors of the earthquake sent a wave of panic across Bhutan. Only in 2011, an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale had wreaked destruction in the east. Yet, despite the panic, Bhutan was swift to dispatch a team of specialists – doctors, relief and rescue personnel – along with food and aid to Nepal.
Nepal and Bhutan are both located at areas formed as a result of the head-on collision between the Indian and Eurasia plates. And, so far, in the last 100 years, four mega earthquakes have occurred along the Himalayan front of Nepal and India. The last major earthquake was in 1934 in Nepal-Bihar. It claimed more than 10,000 lives. Bhutan, according to experts, has not suffered seismic disaster in such large scales by these mega earthquakes because of pure chance. That doesn’t mean we don’t get shaken about often.
In recent years, Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing have witnessed the effects of three significant earthquakes. The earthquake of 1980 (6.1 on the Richter scale), with its epicenter in Sikkim (India), caused several cracks in buildings in Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Trashigang. The earthquakes of 1988 (6.6 on the Richter scale) and 2003 (5.5) with epicenters in the Indo-Nepal border and Bhutan respectively, also caused similar damages to human settlements, institutional buildings and highways.
In Bhutan, only structures constructed after the early 90s have been designed and approved to be ‘quake resilient.’ That doesn’t mean the structures won’t collapse, it only means that the occupants will get a little more time to run to safety. This earthquake, perhaps, should serve as a reminder to all countries in the region to intensify their preparations and stay prepared for any calamity that strikes unannounced. After all, it is better to be safe than sorry.