Saturday, May 02, 2015

Should people live in Nepal?

We are back to breast beating … 6,000 plus have perished in the aftermath of the earthquake in the Himalayas. The count is still heading north. Rescue efforts are on, the international community is coming together, aid in money and kind are pouring forth from across the world and so on. Geo-politics rears its head – ugly or not – in terms of competitive aid giving. Of course, a lot of candles are being lit, global warming be damned!
Think about it. Hardly anything is different than what must have happened in other disaster situations in the so-called developing/poor countries. This is just the April 2015 version. We do have to ask whether Nepalese were aware that they were sitting ducks for an earthquake. Of course they must have known. Then, why did they settle down there?
Were you to ask such a question of a Nepalese, she would shoot right back, “Didn’t the Japanese know that theirs is an earthquake prone country? Why is there a nation called Japan then? You should know about 5,500 people were killed in Kobe in Japan in 1995, despite all their vaunted earthquake design expertise, civil defense, training, warning systems etc. Why are they still living there?”
OK, that was a straw man I set up just to knock it down easily. You know as well as I do why there is a country called Nepal. It is an unexploited ecological niche that was waiting to be filled in and people moved in. No different than seeing cobwebs in unattended corners of the house!
Simple as that. This is what happened in Hawaii some centuries ago. People are living on the slopes of volcanic mountains - though dormant now they can erupt any moment. A disaster is bound to ensue. Hawaii extended an open invitation, perhaps masking its death traps. People moved in, choosing to ignore the negatives, given the positives. Tourists followed. It is a vacationer’s paradise. But, beyond all these, it is also a death trap.
As far as death traps go, so are Japan, the Philippines, Chile, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Italy, the US and just about any country you can name. If it is not earthquake, it is hurricanes, avalanches, cyclones, tornadoes, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions and much else one can think of. That is, no place is a guaranteed safe haven.
People do try to make their habitat as safe as they can. Being prepared to meet disaster eventuality is an element of making one’s homestead a safe place – isn’t this why you have a lock on your door? If you are rich and your assets are vast, you employ private security.
Making safe may also mean the wherewithal to evacuate a place at a moment’s notice. In a society this may go under the name civil defense. Then comes the ability to restore life to normalcy in the event of a disaster.
This is where the difference between Kobe in Japan and Nepal rises in sharp relief. Yes, 5,500 people died in Kobe, but given the population density of that region it should have been much more. Yes, a long stretch of an elevated highway just toppled over, even given that Japanese civil engineering is second to none.

The point to be made is we may prepare as much as we want but there is never a guarantee that a disaster will not strike. A society’s wherewithal is evidenced in the aftermath of a disaster event. OK, there is also the matter of working to prevent disaster. Indeed, put these two together, you may have defined what a developed country is, going beyond GDP – in exchange rate terms or in PPP or any other economic measure.
Earthquake preparedness and NRA
Now, a catchy couple of sentences are doing the rounds in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake: “… Earthquakes do not kill people, unsafe buildings do.” Who created the buildings? Structural engineers. Ergo, structural engineers caused this disaster. This follows the logic espoused by the rifle lobby NRA in the US: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. People misused the guns.
If you saw the parallel, the cause of the disaster is set right at the feet of the engineer, the civil & structural engineer, to be precise. The question to be asked is whether the engineer was working in a social vacuum.
I will take you back to Bhuj earthquake. Soon after that disaster the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) got to work, and as is its wont, in the reactive mode. It upped the seismic zonation of the various regions of the country by one level, making the designs “safer” by mandating higher strengths for the building elements, and also certain enhanced detailing measures in how they are connected. This is not too bad, given our technological wherewithal. You must understand we do not do much pro-active research. We do not anticipate, only react.
In the Indian Concrete Journal, a journal for academic and practicing professionals in the field of concrete structures, there was a note by an engineer in Gujarat critical of these mandates. His point was while it is well and good that higher standards are being demanded, did anyone think of enforcing the same. The implied answer is a resounding No, and the argument-stopper was: then, how do you ensure that an honest designer/contractor does not go out of business because of the unscrupulous (many or few – goes unanswered) in the profession? A gun is being held to the head of the honest practicing professional. That is, the engineer does not operate in a vacuum, cannot be isolated from society.
While the gun lobby in the US blames people for misusing guns and killing people – a position I reject in totality – the parallel with the builder/promoter lobby is precisely wrong in the following sense: the proximate cause is the structural engineer but the “enabling” factors are varied and different. In the case of misuse of guns, the proximate cause is the final cause in totality. It is here the analogy fails so spectacularly.
Should Nepal be depopulated?
One cannot reduce the levels of disaster by mandating that people not live in Nepal. Even those who oppose NRA most severely do not ask that guns be banned. They ask for a more stringent licensing procedure. That is all.
It is likewise to be mandated and strictly enforced that people, particularly the promoters, developers and engineers scrupulously follow the set rules and regulations. There must be social conscience among these. Of course, the layman plays a part in developing and sustaining this level of conscience.
Then we come a full circle. The disaster that struck Nepal so devastatingly is the result of a chain of causal factors, extending from individuals to the engineers, no one left behind.
It is in this expanded perspective we can see that the catchy idiom, “… Earthquakes do not kill people, unsafe buildings do,” makes sense.
To answer the title question, first let me take recourse to how guns may be made no more than a bit actor in societal violence – gun control. Likewise, people are free to live in Nepal but under controlled conditions.
Who allows these conditions to be violated? Everyone and not just the engineer who designs “unsafe” buildings.
As pithy as “… Earthquakes do not kill people, unsafe buildings do,” is, it hides more than it reveals. To understand the issues, please do parse the sentence.
Raghuram Ekambaram


Indian Satire said...

We don't mind destruction but can't stop our greedy construction.

mandakolathur said...

So true, Balu. And you may add that greed is cumulative! Everyone par takes in it.



Aditi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aditi said...

As a structural engineer your observations carry more meaning than it would coming from a layman.

To repeat a cliché, the only lesson we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. This too shall pass and a fresh crop of greedy folks will come in to 'rebuild' the devastated country in exactly the same way they had built earlier.

mandakolathur said...

Yes Aditi, you have a right to be cynical; so do I.

But, as you rightly pointed out I, as a structural engineer with what I consider an expanded perspective of my profession -my vanity perhaps- I do not have the luxury of being an arm-chair activist. But, guess what. In the private university in which I am teaching currently, I have tried engaging faculty members on the issue so that the matter can filter down to students. But, to no avail. But I will plod on.

palahali said...

thanks for the article

mandakolathur said...

Thanks pala