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Lessons from Nepal

MY HEART goes out to the people of Nepal for the loss of lives during the April 25 and the May 12 earthquakes that hit the small Himalayan mountain country.
It is estimated that the quake left a death toll of over 8,000 and injured over 16,000 of both local inhabitants and tourists. This indeed is a very sad occasion. Neighbouring India, China and Bangladesh also suffered losses, albeit, on a much reduced scale.
Earthquakes occur when there is a sudden release of energy due to plate techtonics, or shifting of plates in the earth’s crust resulting in seismic waves. These waves will consequently result in the shaking of the ground causing buildings to stress or collapse and may also cause landslides.
If the epicentre of the quake is located offshore, this may result in a tsunami as was witnessed in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 in which over 230,000 people were killed or went missing. Earthquakes can never be predicted. However there are earthquake-prone areas such as Japan, Turkey, Pakistan and California in the United States.
The majority of casualties in the Nepal earthquake tragedy were as a result of collapsed or damaged buildings. Indications are that most of these buildings are ancient structures and do not meet the required building regulation codes. In some instances, entire towns and villages were flattened. This is perhaps due to again poor building construction techniques which are not able to withstand the devastating effects of earthquakes.
The quake we are told has had a devastating impact on Nepal’s economy affecting up to 50 percent of its gross domestic product and it will take an estimated period of 10 to 15 years to fully recover. The effects on the countries health facilities are immense not to mention social structures like schools.
What lessons can we learn from this calamity? The Nepal quake should indeed be a wake-up call for vulnerable regions. We need to strengthen building codes in order to reduce or sustain damage to structures should we experience any such earthquakes or tremors. Shoddy construction and rapid urbanisation can lead to such disasters.
First of all, we are very fortunate with the fact that as a country we do not lie on any major fault line. However, Zambia has experienced earth tremors in the past that cause damage to buildings and other structures. Vibrations or earth tremors in non-earthquake belts or regions can be induced by uncontrolled blasting activities in stone quarry, open pit mines and underground mines.
Secondly, how prepared are we in terms of response to disasters, floods and disease outbreaks included? Do we have enough trained personnel and equipment in search and rescue operations? The office of the disaster management under the Office of the Vice-President needs to be strengthened with mitigation framework and risk reduction measures put in place.  No need to be seen to be hyper-active during time of crisis only to revert to business-as-usual as soon as attention dies down.
Lessons were not fully learnt from the Kanyama flood disaster of 1977 in which over 5,000 people were left homeless due to poor water drainage. I say so because to this day, year in year out we are still experiencing “Kanyama disasters” albeit on a smaller scale.
The Department of Building Inspectorate in municipalities must be strengthened and be rid of corruption. We cannot go on building death traps. We also need to actively engage professionals such as architects, structural engineers and geotechnical engineers when designing structures.
The author an engineer with JKL Associates.