Saturday, April 25, at 11:56am, a powerful earthquake hit the country of Nepal. Within minutes, in the capital of Kathmandu, a densely populated city of 1.2 million people, buildings were reduced to rubble, street after street. Hundreds of bodies buried and many people trapped beneath bricks and concrete still alive.
By Tuesday, April 28, the death toll had risen to over 5,000, according to the Nepal’s Emergency Operation Centre, which said more than 10,000 people had been injured.
For many hours after the quake hit and then into the next day a series of aftershocks sent people into new waves of panic. Through the night people dug through the rubble with pick axes and bare hands, pulling out bodies, looking for trapped survivors. Tens of thousands in Kathmandu slept outside Saturday night afraid to stay inside buildings because aftershocks threatened to cause buildings, weakened by the initial shock, to collapse. News sources from Kathmandu report that hundreds of thousands of people in Central Nepal also slept outside, many of them who had lost their homes made of mud and thatch.
The epicenter of the main earthquake that hit on Saturday morning was about 50 miles from Kathmandu, in the Gorkha district in west Nepal. Pokhara, one of Nepal’s major cities with a population of about 250,000 people, some 50 miles further west of the epicenter was also hard hit. The earthquake has affected 38 out of 75 of Nepal’s districts.
Over 80% of Nepal’s over 29 million people live in the countryside and there have been reports that 80% of the houses in the rural areas affected by the earthquake have been completely destroyed. Vim Tamang, a resident of Manglung near the epicenter was quoted as saying, “Our village has been almost wiped out. Most of our houses are either buried by landslide or damaged by shaking.” Tamang said that half the village’s population was missing or dead and that, “All the villagers have gathered in the open area. We don’t know what to do.” [Guardian, April 25, 2015]
Nepal Fault line
The magnitude of an earthquake measures the amount shaking. This earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 is considered a very big earthquake. The catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti was 7.0. Nepal has had only four earthquakes of 6.0 magnitude or higher in last 100 years. An earthquake of 8.3 magnitude in 1934 killed more than 10,000 people in Nepal.
Seismologists (scientists who study the mechanical properties of the earth and the science of earthquakes) have expected a major earthquake in western Nepal. This is an area where there is pent-up pressure from the grinding between tectonic plates—large, thin, plate-like sections that move relative to one another on the outer surface of the Earth. These plates are always moving slowly but when they get stuck at the edges due to friction and the stress overcomes the friction, this causes an earthquake that releases energy in waves that travels through the Earth’s crust.
The quake that hit Nepal on Saturday happened on what is known as a “thrust fault.” This is a situation when one piece of the Earth’s crust is moving beneath another piece. In this case, it’s the Indian plate that is moving north at 1.7 inches a year under the Eurasian plate to the north. This is where 40 to 50 million years ago, the collision of these two plates gave rise to the Himalayan mountain range.
The shallower the location of the earthquake, the more destructive power it carries and the earthquake that hit Nepal had a depth of only 7 miles, which is considered shallow in geological terms. It was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, which is more than 700 miles away; in Lhasa in Tibet, 380 miles away and in Dhaka, Bangladesh which is 400 miles away.
The Disaster of Domination and Impoverishment
Nepal is ranked 11th in terms of countries at risk in terms of vulnerability to earthquakes. And out of 21 cities around the world that are in similar earthquake/hazardous zones, Kathmandu is rated the worst in terms of the impact an earthquake would have on the people who live there.
Speaking to the relationship between these two things, seismologist James Jackson, head of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge in England made a very important point: While the trigger of the disaster is natural—an earthquake—“the consequences are very much man-made.”
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, has long been oppressed—subordinate to, dependent on, and dominated by India and imperialist countries like the U.S. The vast majority of people in Nepal are peasants in the countryside, desperately poor, malnourished, and exploited by corrupt officials, landlords, and moneylenders. Nepal has a caste system—a rigidly structured social order in which different social groupings are ranked and lower castes and oppressed ethnic groups face systematic discrimination. In the world imperialist system Nepal also functions in part as a source of cheap migrant labor, especially in India and countries in the Middle East.
In the rural areas, where most people live there is little or no access to health care, education, safe drinking water, sanitation or other basic services. Women are intensely suppressed and treated as inferior in every facet of society. The difficulties of survival force many men to go work in construction in Qatar and Dubai in the Persian Gulf. Women often become victims of sexual slavery in India.
In the overcrowded cities there is a lack of modern infrastructure—water and sewage systems, electrical power, transportation and communication. Over the past decade, migration of people from the rural areas to the cities has exerted pressure on the cities’ already under-developed infrastructure and services. The urban poor face homelessness, lack of clean drinking water, poor sanitation. In Nepal, there are about four million squatters living in cities and towns—50,000 in Kathmandu living in settlements in unhygienic and unsanitary areas. [IRINnews.org]
Nepal with such under-development is poorly equipped to deal with such an emergency. Even in “normal” times there is unreliable electricity with routine blackouts. The over 6,000 buildings that go up every few years in Kathmandu are poorly built and many times don’t adhere to regulations. The government spends little on addressing the tremendous conditions of poverty, let alone providing funds to prepare for earthquakes and other natural disasters. Nepal is economically dominated by India and nearly all the country’s gas and diesel supplies are brought in from India. With roads blocked due to the earthquake this means that supplies will quickly run dry.
Only one week before the earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, experts met in Nepal to prepare for what they saw as a “nightmare waiting to happen.” They feared the worst, not just because of the fact that Nepal lies on a seismic fault but also because of the human conditions that make such an event so much worse.
Seismologist David Wald points out that the same size earthquake can have very different effects in different places because of building construction and population. For example, in California in the United Stats, the same level of severe shaking would cause 10 to 30 people to die per million. But in Nepal this would be 1,000 or maybe more and up to 10,000 in parts of Pakistan, India, Iran and China. [nbcnews.com]
There was little that could be done to stop the earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25, 2015. But the fact that there is such tremendous death, destruction and suffering as a result of this natural disaster IS something due to human/societal factors—namely the system of capitalism/imperialism which subjects countries like Nepal to such impoverishment.