Why Nepal suffered fewer fatalities than Turkey in similar quakes
By BHIM BHURTEL
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey on February 6, and more than 45,000 people have died to date, and the toll is still rising. A quake of the same magnitude struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, and 8,790 people were killed in that Gorkha Earthquake.
Turkey and Nepal have huge disparities in terms of economic and human development and the regulatory capacity of the government. Turkey’s per capita GDP is eight times that of Nepal. Turkey is an upper-middle-income country with US$9,662 per capita. In comparison, Nepal is a low-income country with $1,208 per capita GDP (as of 2021) in the classification of the World Bank economies.
In terms of the Human Development Index (HDI), Nepal ranks 95 places lower than Turkey, in 143rd position while Turkey is 48th.
Remarkably, many Western seismologists, disaster risk reduction (DRR) experts, and development and humanitarian agencies had warned before the Gorkha Earthquake that if a major quake occurred in Nepal, it would kill more than 100,000 people, and 300,000 people would be injured in Kathmandu alone.
However, the actual death toll was only 8.8% of that predicted by Western seismology experts, DRR experts, and international development and humanitarian aid organizations. As well, only 1% of the projected injuries actually occurred. And although Nepal’s and Turkey’s respective earthquakes had the same magnitude, Turkey outnumbered Nepal’s death and injury tolls.
There were a number of reasons for these discrepancies, primarily the assumptions made by “experts” analyzing Nepal.
The first assumption was that Nepal has a poor regulatory capacity and poor building-code enforcement. Secondly, it was believed, least-developed countries’ governments are corrupt and overlook building codes if they are bribed. Third, there is poor disaster preparedness and low investment in disaster risk management programs due to low income and, consequently, low savings.
The fourth assumption was the poor quality of life in cities like Kathmandu and the lack of open space. Fifth is the alleged lack of structural and architectural engineering capacity and skilled human resources for earthquake-proof housing development. Sixth is the poor quality of public buildings, especially schools and hospitals, and last is the perceived lack of human and physical resources to combat large-scale natural calamities.
Yet despite the huge socioeconomic disparities depicted by multilateral development agencies and the many structural weaknesses of Nepal pointed out by Western scientists, DRR experts, and seismologists, Turkey’s death toll from the disaster last month was five times Nepal’s in 2015. This has caused an enigma, no less than a paradox, for Western experts, humanitarian agencies, and even journalists.
There are several possible theories to explain this conundrum. The first theory is simply the good luck of the Nepali people in terms of the timing of the earthquake. The Gorkha Earthquake hit Nepal during the daytime and on a Saturday, a weekly public holiday, whereas the Turkish quake struck early in morning.
The second theory is that Turkey was hit by a 7.9-magnitude quake followed by a 7.6-magnitude aftershock. In contrast, Nepal was struck initially by the same magnitude but a slightly less severe (7.3-magnitude) aftershock.
The third theory is that the Gorkha Earthquake’s epicenter was just 85 kilometers from Kathmandu, whereas the epicenter of the Turkey earthquake was near the southern city of Kahramanmaras, which proved to be ill-equipped for the disaster.
However, these three theories are inadequate to explain the different human and collateral damage from the Nepal and Turkey earthquakes.
In my opinion, these are a few more considerations we can make to illuminate why there were lower fatalities and injuries in Nepal compared with Turkey.
First, the Western-led development agencies, humanitarian agencies, and their local partners in Nepal overstated the problem. These agencies found that DRR is a lucrative area of fundraising after the second UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) held in Kobe, Japan, in 2005 in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast and South Asia.
These organizations want to make their DRR program proposals award-winning to get development grants from philanthropies and other donors in developed countries in a dog-eat-dog-world situation by exaggerating facts and figures.
Second, Western development agencies, DRR experts, scientists, and journalists have suffered from a “colonizer mindset” by which they portrayed Nepal as a poor, underdeveloped, corrupt and poorly governed country.
The colonizer mindset also believes that a developing country’s government’s regulatory authority suffers from bad governance and that house construction permits can be obtained in exchange for bribes without careful consideration.
In the same way, Nepali scholars and partners of Western development agencies, DRR experts, and scientists also have suffered from a “colonized mindset” as they played a helpful role in spreading Western narratives in Nepal.
Both mindsets permanently perceive Nepal as a least developed and economically poor country, ill-prepared for disasters. These experts and scientists have a preoccupied mind that there is low investment in disaster preparedness and risk management due to insufficient knowledge, technology, managerial and regulatory capacity, and financial resources.
Because of the “colonizer mindset” and “colonized mindset,” they made wrong assumptions to surmise high fatality and injury numbers that were basically proved wrong.
A third factor is the unique legal provision of land registration in Nepal, which is quite different than in other countries. In Nepal, a property or house is not registered; instead, the land is registered. In recent decades Nepal placed a new rule to register apartments in high-rise buildings for housing development.
The Kathmandu Valley is small and there is no further possibility of horizontal expansion of the city, and so it is necessary for government to expand the city vertically with high-rise residential buildings. However, many people have less trust in such ownership. The new legal provision significantly prevented casualties because the construction of high-rise buildings was stopped in Nepal.
Still, the new rule provides collective ownership of the apartment with the land where the apartment is built. Only a few people prefer to buy such apartments developed by the private sector.
Public-sector housing development is not widely practiced in Nepal. High-rise buildings are less prevalent because of the clumsy land registration practices, and people prefer owning a small house rather than an apartment in a high-rise building.
Consequently, high-rise buildings make up less than 1% of the total residential buildings in Nepal. Therefore, the number of people living in houses prepared by private developers is minimal. Consequently, compared with Turkey, the number of properties constructed by private builders and contractors is significantly lower. Only one building collapsed in the Gorkha Earthquake among these few high-rise buildings, and no one died as a result.
In contrast, tens of thousands of multi-story buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged by the quakes in Turkey’s Kahramanmaras and other badly affected areas, causing high casualties.
Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master’s program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.