Kathmandu is hit by a major earthquake every 70 or 80 years – and the last was in 1934

Kathmandu's skyline. Image: Getty.

Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal and home to an estimated 2.5m people, sits in a zone of high seismic activity. The city has historically been hit by a major earthquake every 70 or 80 years. The last big one was in 1934. The eight-magnitude quake destroyed most of Kathmandu’s houses, killed more than 10,000 people and injured thousands more. Experts say we are dangerously close to another earthquake – only this time the impact would be much bigger. The city itself has grown massively in the last few decades: houses have been built without consideration to building codes, the city features fewer open spaces, and there are few if any signs of urban planning and disaster preparedness.

Walking through the narrow lanes of inner Kathmandu, where daylight struggles to penetrate and houses stand precariously in front of one another, the city looks like a catastrophe waiting to happen. If an eight-magnitude earthquake were to rock Kathmandu today, the damage would be unprecedented. The Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) estimates that 60 per cent of the buildings will be destroyed, more than 100,000 people will die and twice as many will be injured. The majority of roads, bridges, hospitals and airports will collapse making rescue and rehabilitation extremely difficult. Water mains will be destroyed, there will be no power and phone lines will not work.

The importance of a preparedness plan cannot be stressed enough for a city like Kathmandu. Nepal has to act soon, and on a war-scale if it wants to avert tragedy. For a country that has seen prolonged political instability, long-term planning is a concept difficult to grasp: that’s part of the reason why disaster management failed to become a priority for successive governments. It is also worthwhile to remember that Nepal hasn’t conducted local elections since 1997. Not having elected mayors or elected representatives at the village and the district level has eroded accountability at all levels of governance, and relegated pressing issues like disaster planning to the backseat of governance.

 However, the realization of the danger ahead seems to have set in and the government has been able to take some concrete steps. In 2009, Nepal rolled out a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management. A few years back Nepal’s international partners came together to form the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium. The consortium works with the government to reduce vulnerability to disasters by retrofitting schools and hospitals, providing emergency preparedness and response, training communities and strengthening policies and institutions.

NSET estimates that 60,000 schools in the country need retrofitting. Although the cash-strapped government might not be able to retrofit them all, thousands of lives can be saved if the government can at least ensure the schools follow building codes. There are also other urgent tasks, especially of preparing for the aftermath. Equipping hospitals to deal with earthquake emergency, stockpiling of medicines and essential supplies, and making sure there is enough water, food and fuel for the city in the first few days following the earthquake is critical.

In the long run, however, what Kathmandu needs is an action plan to build resilience against disasters and a strong political will to see that through. That would mean building earthquake resistant infrastructures, enforcing strict building codes, increasing awareness about disaster mitigation and safety, and bringing disaster management to the centre of urban planning. It also means having to rethink our idea of what “development” consists of: accepting the constraints imposed by nature, and finding ways to reconcile growth with sustainability.

Rubeena Mahato is from Nepal and she is studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” will take place this week and will explore new ideas to tackle the impacts of rapid urbanization across the world. 

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.