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. 

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.