The death toll from the devastating Nepal earthquake has passed 4,000 and looks set to rise as rescue efforts struggle to locate survivors and account for the dead. At the moment, it is the worst earthquake to hit the country since 1934 when more than 10,000 people died across the Nepalese-Indian border after a magnitude 8.4 earthquake struck near Mount Everest, the site of 17 deaths in this latest disaster.
The severity of the 1934 earthquake was such that the walls and facings of many buildings in Calcutta – some 400 miles away – cracked, whilst others collapsed. In the settlements surrounding the epicentre, meanwhile, almost every structure sustained serious damage. The violent shaking of the initial earthquake caused many buildings to crumble, with subsequent fissures in the ground forcing thousands of others to tilt or subside. Similar patterns of damage have been witnessed in the past couple of days.
For many people living in Nepal and the northern Indian state of Bihar during the 1930s, their dwellings consisted of little more than mud huts which succumbed easily to the violent force of the tremors. Despite the warnings of past events, few people in Nepal are able to afford more substantial houses even today, hence the level of destruction.
Another consequence of the earthquake in 1934 was the ejection of huge quantities of sand from the fissures, causing thousands of acres of fertile farmland to be buried, a fatal repercussion for the survivors who relied on this land for their day-to-day survival. The silting up of rivers and lakes provided its own challenge to the regional water supply.
As with last weekend’s earthquake, the 1934 event resulted in the destruction of historic sites, ancient temples and municipal buildings. Not only was the human cost vast but the cultural and religious cost also, providing an added demoralisation to those living in its midst.
Most of the buildings in Kathmandu were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, large cracks appearing in the roadways, swallowing all in their way. Amazingly, the sacred 5th century Pashupatinath Temple at the city’s heart survived relatively undamaged in 1934, just as it has today. The apparent indestructibility of the Guardian Deity of Nepal offers hope to all.
Writing shortly after the 1934 earthquake, Nobuji Nasu made the following observations about how to ensure the region was better prepared for similar events in the future:
1) Use only good quality mortar and bricks;
2) Ensure buildings are monolithic;
3) Avoid loose beams and joists in the upper floors and roofs of dwellings;
4) Increase the strength of the walls.
Nasu wrote that adopting such procedures after the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake had put Japan in a better position to resist the devastating impacts of earthquakes. Yet at the same time he noted that:
The unfortunate part of it however is the inability of the average Indian householder to afford to use high-grade building materials.
However much we learn from the disasters of the past, simple economics will always play a key role in deciding whether these lessons can be actioned. The devastation in Nepal over the weekend goes further to prove the heightened vulnerability of impoverished and overpopulated communities in resisting natural disasters, something that even developed countries find challenging enough.
Nasu, N., ‘The Great Indian Earthquake of January 15, 1934’, Earthquake Research Institute (1935)