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Overdevelopment and unsafe development magnify the impacts of hazards

A blog on the Nepal Earthquake

Khadga, Ramesh and colleagues from Nepalese GNDR member organisation National Society for Earthquake Technology Nepal (NSET) took me on a tour of Kathmandu last year, past the 1934 earthquake memorial. After that event there was a law enacted that no building should be higher than five stories. You can see those buildings and you can see the extra stories built on top in subsequent years. You can see the mobile phone tower built on top of that – so not only do the extended buildings exceed the height that would leave access along the roads if they collapse, but the comms get taken out too. A year later, the anticipated earthquake has struck and the BBC are reporting that rescuers had to hack tunnels through the streets to get to victims:

'Army officer Santosh Nepal told the Reuters news agency that he and his soldiers had to dig a passage into a collapsed three-storey residential building in Kathmandu using pickaxes because bulldozers could not get through the ancient city's narrow streets'

As well as retrofitting public buildings such as schools to make them safer, one of NSET's programmes has been to work with local owners and builders to try to persuade them to follow building codes. This is difficult because the owners have often moved out of the city to suburban areas and make an income from letting the buildings, so are not deeply concerned about safety, and the builders are typically small businesses so difficult to regulate. A rickshaw driver we interviewed last year recognised the inevitability of an earthquake but explained why he had to live in the city anyway because of the lack of work and income in the rural village which was his original home. The pressure to increase income from building and extending has driven overdevelopment and unsafe development throughout the city.

The reality check here is that where development is not inclusive and doesn't account of the needs and safety of all the citizens, then overdevelopment and unsafe development will magnify the impact of a hazard, and that impact will be greatest for the poorest.

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